Erika D. Smith

The system keeps failing mentally ill black men. Stevante Clark is just the latest example

Stevante Clark speaks to the Sacramento City Council on April 10.
Stevante Clark speaks to the Sacramento City Council on April 10. pkitatagaki@sacbee.com

Hours after Stevante Clark was taken to jail on Thursday morning, a sword stuffed in his pants and a bulletproof vest strapped to his chest, his cousin Sonia Lewis was still trying to make sense of it all.

“Him being in jail is not going to solve anything,” she told my colleague Anita Chabria. “It's not going to fix anything. As a matter of fact, it's going to trigger and make it worse.”

She’s right, of course.

Stevante, the older brother of Stephon Clark, who was gunned down in his grandparents’ backyard last month by two terrified Sacramento police officers, is clearly in the midst of a psychological crisis. He has been unraveling before our eyes for weeks.

There was the evening he burst into a Sacramento City Council meeting, jumped on the dais and told Mayor Darrell Steinberg to “shut the f--- up.” There was the Sunday he got thrown out of church for supposedly disrupting the service, and the weekend he saw footage of his brother being shot, when he destroyed a hotel room in a fit of rage and pain.

And then there are the threats. To strangers. To neighbors. To his roommates, allegedly. And the videos on social media. On Tuesday, Stevante live-streamed a verbal confrontation with the most patient cop I’ve ever seen.

“Why do you want to send me back to the mental institution?” Stevante demanded between curse words and insults.

“Sir, I don’t have any desire to send you to a mental institution,” the officer responded. “That’s not my intention.”

And therein lies the problem.

A mental health facility, whether it's inpatient or outpatient, is exactly where Stevante needs to be, at least for the moment. Instead, he’s in jail because, in a county that prioritizes his civil right to fall apart on the street over his own obvious cries for help, that is literally the best the city of Sacramento can do.

Two weeks ago, police brought Stevante to UC Davis Medical Center for treatment. When he got out 72 hours later, he told The Bee “I needed it.” But since then, he has ignored pleas from friends and family to go back. He’s grown increasingly erratic, and now, inevitably, he's been sucked into the criminal justice system.

How pathetic is that? If we can’t help Stevante, a man who, two weeks ago, told the entire City Council “I have mental health issues,” whom can we help?

Part of the answer is to get the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors to finally implement Laura’s Law. Passed in 2002, it gives the courts in counties that have opted in more discretion to require psychiatric treatment for people who refuse it, including those with a serious mental illness and histories of hospitalizations, incarceration and violent behavior.

Another part of the answer is the task force that Mayor Darrell Steinberg is launching this weekend. A group of mental and behavioral health professionals will start providing therapy to residents of some of Sacramento's poorest and most violent neighborhoods, including Meadowview, where police killed Stephon in his grandparents’ backyard.

But those answers aren't enough. As a city, as a state and, heck, as a nation, we also have to recognize just how often what's happening to Stevante happens to other black men.

By most estimates, African Americans are 20 percent more likely than other Americans to experience a serious mental health issue, from severe depression to post-traumatic stress disorder to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Yet, only about 25 percent of us seek treatment, compared to 40 percent of white Americans.

The reasons for this are both complex and simple. Black people are more likely to witness and be victims of violent crime, leading to high rates of PTSD in black neighborhoods. Stevante, for example, lost another brother to gun violence before Stephon was killed. Black people also are more likely to be poor, which, in California, is the biggest barrier to getting help, according to the Department of Mental Health.

Then there’s the stigma of mental illness, which, while it reaches across all races, ethnicities and social classes, is particularly insidious in the black community. Being black is hard enough in America. Who wants to add the label of being “crazy” on top of it?

Think about it. If Stevante were white and middle class, he would be a “traumatized young man” who is “clearly having a hard time” and “really needs help.”

But Stevante isn’t white. He’s a black man from Meadowview. He’s a rapper. He wears baggy clothes, sunglasses indoors, long colorful scarves around his bald head and Beats headphones around his neck. His English isn’t perfect. He curses a lot.

To far too many people, Stevante is nothing more than a “street thug” and a “demented fool” who is a “threat,” “doesn’t know his place” and is “trying to grab his 15 minutes of fame from the blood of his brother's death.” And yes, these are real comments, pulled off Facebook and Twitter.

Add to that the grim statistics that roughly 25 percent of the Americans who get killed by police every year have a serious mental illness, and that about the same percentage are black men, even though they make up only 6 percent of the nation’s population, and you begin to see the scope of the problem.

If Stevante weren’t Stevante, and the mayor’s office and Police Department hadn’t been working with his family, there’s a good chance he could’ve suffered the same fate as Joseph Mann or Dazion Flenaugh, two mentally ill black men who were killed by law enforcement in Sacramento.

On Thursday, police responded to call about a black man — Stevante — in a bulletproof vest hitting cars with a shovel and trying to barricade the road with trash cans. "We're getting multiple calls about it,” a dispatcher reported. “He's streaming it live on the internet, armed with a machete threatening a female at that address."

When officers arrived, Stevante led them on a foot chase.

"We're taking him into custody now," an officer radioed, adding later, "No use of force."

Just jail.

"It breaks my heart," Lewis, his cousin, said, "that we, as Americans — supposedly the country with all the resources — we can't figure out mental health."

Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, Erika_D_Smith

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