‘Over-policed’, ‘underprotected’: Black men, mental health, and Irish policing

Image Credit: Irish emergency services instagram, via Wikimedia commons

How are An Garda Síochána equipped to respond to incidents where race and mental illness overlap? Caoilfhinn Hegarty investigates

On the 30th of December 2020 a twenty-seven year old Black man with a history of mental illness was shot dead after an altercation with the Gardaí. His name was George Nkencho. A standoff had occurred after unarmed members of An Garda Síochána had been called to the scene of a Eurospar in Hartstown, responding to reports of a knife-wielding man and an assault on a member of staff. Gardaí pursued Nkencho to his home in Manorsfield Drive, Clonee, where officers reported being threatened by him with the knife. In the ensuing escalation of the situation, a member of the Garda Armed Support Unit discharged several bullets at Nkencho, who was later pronounced dead in hospital. His sister Gloria and their two younger siblings were within the house when the shots rang out. Speaking to RTÉ’s Prime Time, Gloria recounts how she had opened the front door moments prior in an attempt to communicate with Gardaí, "I said to the guards 'he’s sick; move".

Coming as they did at the end of a year which had brought renewed international attention to the Black Lives Matter movement sparked by the killing of George Floyd in the United States, it may have been tempting for some in Ireland to characterise the protests which sprang up in the wake of Nkencho’s death, and indeed those which had taken place over the summer in direct response to the shooting of Floyd, as displays of imported American concerns about the intersection of racism and police-brutality. Not applicable to Irish society. Shane O’Curry, a spokesperson for the Irish Network Against Racism (INAR), firmly disagrees. Speaking to The University Observer, O’Curry emphasises that "the type of racism that people of African descent experience in Ireland is an Irish variant of a global anti-African and anti-Black racism". 

O’Curry describes the environment in which Nkencho had grown up - Dublin suburbs where the Black youth are "over-policed" and "under-protected". "We have", he adds, "recorded a number of instances of the brutalisation of young Black men at the hands of An Garda Siochána". The "many reports [which] have shown there is a problem of racial bias within An Garda Síochána’ are just one aspect of the constant ‘drip drip of racism’ that Black Irish people face". A study titled ‘Being Black in the EU’, released in 2019 by the EU Fundamental Rights Agency, revealed that a third of those surveyed in Ireland reported discrimination due to skin colour. It is here that the issue of mental health rears into relevance. According to data collected from the racism monitoring programme iReport.ie since 2013, experiencing racial prejudice can be definitively linked to heightened levels of anxiety, depression, social withdrawal, substance abuse, and mental instability. As O’Curry notes, Nkencho himself had suffered the loss of his friend ,Toyosi Shittabey, who was "killed in a racist hate-crime" in 2010, an event after which Nkencho reportedly began to drift and withdraw from his old social circles. "I can’t even begin to imagine", O’Curry says, "how I would feel if I was a young Black man trying to do my best to engage positively in the everyday life of my community" while dealing with the "slights" and "sideways looks" that are par for the course to the Irish African community.

One of the most urgent issues when speaking on the mental health of Black men is perception. O’Curry explains how as a society we are conditioned to "get a sense of threat, a sense of badness, and of evil in all kinds of subliminal ways" when it comes to Black people, and that in Dublin this has lent itself to "a moral panic about young Black men when they hang out with each other, as though they were some kind of menace....when all they are being is teenagers". That this deep-seated bias could complicate or obstruct any assistance for Black men struggling with mental ill-health is a pressing concern. It is now thought that Nkencho could have been suffering from a mental health crisis at the time of his death, given his sister’s statement that he had been ‘suffering from serious mental illness’ in the last months of his life. As far as O’Curry is concerned; "whatever the professionalism, whatever the intentions of the officers acting in that moment….it is not fanciful to say that racial bias could have had a role in the split-second decision making in which they fired several shots at this mentally distressed man", especially given the reports INAR have received relating to Clonee and other Dublin suburbs which show that 'Gardaí are as susceptible to acting upon stereotypes and biases as the rest of the population’, and furthermore ‘point to a problem of a racist culture’ within the force.

This is not the first time An Garda Síochána have come under scrutiny for their handling of people in mental distress. On the 20th of April, 2000 John Carthy, a resident of Abbylara in County Longford, was shot dead by the Garda Emergency Response Unit after a twenty-five hour siege at his home. Also twenty-seven years old, Carthy had been armed with a double-barrell shotgun which he legally owned and suffered from both clinical depression and bipolar disorder. His death garnered national attention and was followed by an FBI inquiry in 2000 and a public inquiry in 2002. In 2006 Taoiseach Bertie Ahern issued a formal apology on behalf of the government to Carthy’s family for his death. There are obvious differences between the siege scenario which lasted just over a day in April, 2000 and the roughly twenty minutes it took between the first Garda response and the firing of bullets on the afternoon of Nkencho’s killing last December, but Carthy’s death is relevant to Nkencho’s in that it prompted examination of the way in which Gardaí deal with incidents involving the mentally-ill, such as the recommendation of the ‘assignment of mental health professionals in support of Garda negotiators’ from the 2007 Review of Garda Síochána Practices and Procedures for Barricade Incidents. The question is whether subsequent efforts by the force to improve its response style have been enough. O’Curry is wary of "a problem with the police culture" in Ireland, influenced by "cop shows", which derides non-coercive 'soft' policing as 'fluffy, foot-rubbing, yoga-loving nonsense’. He recounts being a community worker and attending a training programme for engaging with the actively suicidal alongside members of the Gardaí;

"We were roleplaying a scenario where somebody was standing on a bridge about to throw themselves in the river, and so we were roleplaying how to have a conversation with someone who is in that space, and...the attitude that prevailed was ‘Sure we wouldn’t waste our time with this nonsense, we’d just rugby tackle the f****r’’. 

To O’Curry this indicated a dismissal of mental-health concerns in favour of perceived ‘real policing’. As matters stand, the Irish Independent reports that ‘Mental health experts were only present to help garda negotiators at three of 38 stand-offs involving a person with mental-health problems in 2020’. These findings take on a new dimension when race is factored in, with the interplay between lacking Garda policies, the high rate of mental health issues among the African-Irish community, and "those stereotypes of Black people being a threat [which] exist in Ireland" having potentially deadly consequences. As O’Curry puts it, as a Black Irish person "to find that somebody who looked like me had been killed because of a confluence of a series of conditions- I can’t even begin to imagine how I would feel".