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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Duncan

Justice For Kalah

The police killing of Kalah Gary last week was a tragedy on many levels that I was not prepared to talk about at the time. It hit close to home both literally and figuratively. While I didn't know the family, I can hike through my inlaw's back 40 and reach their house without much effort. We're neighbors, but beyond that I also know what it's like for a family member to struggle with mental illness, and to interact with the police while suffering a break.

That's what caused me pause: every time I tried to write something I kept making it about my family's experience. I didn't want to inadvertantly hurt Kalah's family by inserting myself into their trauma. After initially trying to reach them indirectly, I took a chance and contacted Kalah's father on Facebook and took him to breakfast. It was a rough conversation at the start, but Mr. Williams was gracious enough to bear with me. We had a long talk about Kalah, her life, and the incident that led to her killing.

I'm amazed by the patience of Mr. Williams, and his willingness to sit down with a random politician that had said nothing thus far. I don't think I could do the same, if I were in his position, and I think that gets lost in these events. Bystanders seem to think seeing a video where your loved one could be perceived as a threat should make you ok that an agent of the government took your family's life. I'm certainly not capable of coping with something like that. It's a credit to Mr. Williams that he want to focus on systematic improvements.

This doesn't absolve the Sheriff's Department or the statewide and county level mental health systems. That's an area where Mr. Williams and I really had an opportunity to connect. I have family members that were in and out of mental healthcare treatments, and had various interactions with law enforcement. Every instance led to them receiving the barest possible treatment and after care, and then being dumped back on their family. In my uncle's case, that was literally true. After he held a weapon on my mother and spent three days in a ward, the White County Sheriff's Department dropped him off in our front yard. I won't divulge the details of Kalah's struggles; that's not my story to tell. Anyone that has tried to get help for a family member will be familiar with how difficult it is to work within the system.

This is not to say that the people at the various mental health agencies aren't trying. Like many jobs in this state, they're assigned more duties than a normal person can do and not given the proper resources. We've all had that job where the bosses only schedule the bare minimum for a busy shift and expect us to toughen up and work through it. And throughout my lifetime, "small government conservatives" have made it their mission to defund government services, which has resulted in the staffing and facility shortages we see today. When my inlaws needed to commit their family member, there was no bed available, they couldn't get a hearing, and even after getting the proper paperwork were told they had to have the consent of the patient. I understand that we have to protect individual rights, so that were don't have unnecessary conservatorships like Brittney Spears. But when the family has the documentation, medical records, and incident history, that ought to outweigh such consideration.

The lack of well trained mental health professionals, and deputies trained in handling mental health emergencies are a failure of the system as a whole. That failure has led to Kalah's, and countless other deaths by police around the country. It's not something that can be fixed by changing one thing, but there are steps we can take to prevent future tragedies. I applaud Mr. Williams for his vision in focusing on this mission.

If elected, I would like to fund more mental health resources and staff throughout the state, particularly in rural areas like Laurens. I would like to mandate all police and sheriff's departments include mental health awareness training and have highly trained officers in this field be available at all times. I would like to make it part of police duties to go to community events in their patrol area, plain clothed, for an hour each week, to better get to know the people they serve. I'm sure there's more, and probably better ideas, so in creating new policy I'll lean on experts and other families that have struggled with the mental health system.

I want to apologize to Mr. Williams and his family for my delay in responding to this tragedy. I realize how such a delay would come across from someone like me, who has no political connections in the county. I'm grateful we were able to meet and share our stories, because it would have been reasonable for him to tell me to pound sand. His commitment to keep Kalah's smiling face in our memories by creating a memorial fund is very inspiring. I hope you all will consider contributing.

Finally, I would like to thank Mr. Williams for proofreading this post through two drafts, so that I don't unintentionally harm Kalah's family. He's a very inspiring man and I hate that I only met him under these awful circumstances.

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