Content note: this article discusses psychosis, ableism, racism, and murder.
On Monday, an angel visited a literary studies lecture at St Andrews College. He was young, Polynesian, wearing shorts, a shirt, and a hospital wristband. “I am an angel,” he explained gently to the class, before proceeding to bless the lecturer and several students. His demeanour was kind, non-aggressive, a little confused.
The angel was escorted off University of Sydney grounds by a staff member. Shortly afterwards, he was killed by police on Carillon Avenue.
The angel’s name was Jack Kokaua. He was thirty years old.
Under the Mental Health Act, a person can be involuntarily hospitalised (“scheduled”) if they are deemed to pose a threat to themselves or others. This is the only circumstance where you cannot refuse treatment in Australia. The Act has been criticised for violating patients’ right to consent, and in some ways can be considered a legacy of the long, dark history of institutionalising disabled people. The Mental Health Coordinating Council has developed resources on alternatives to seclusion and restraint in the treatment of psychiatric patients, as well as a Mental Health Rights Manual that includes advocacy options for involuntary patients. The distinction between voluntary and involuntary patients solely refers to their circumstance of admission; the state’s obligations to patients remain the same.
Having a psychiatric disability is not illegal, nor grounds for arrest, although in Australia, mentally ill people are far more likely to be incarcerated and to be killed by police, especially if they are black. The same is true in the USA and in the UK. Mentally ill people are not, however, any more likely to commit violent crimes than the rest of the population. In fact “people with a mental illness are more likely to cause themselves harm, or to be harmed, than they are to harm others”, and someone who has schizophrenia is 2,000 times more likely to kill themselves than they are to harm someone else.
Earlier in the day, Kokaua had been scheduled after wandering into traffic. The NSW Police Assistant Commissioner Mark Walton stated that “Police approached the man who resisted police and attempted to run away. The violent confrontation continued which required additional police to restrain the man. He was ultimately brought under control and assessed by NSW ambulance officers.”
His choice of words is interesting. Jaywalking is indeed a crime (one that is often used for racial targeting), but can running away really be called a “violent confrontation” or “resisting police”? Australian cops are infamous for racially profiling Indigenous people, and yet they do not collect internal data regarding their own racism. The number of Aboriginal deaths in custody continues to grow, and only two weeks ago an Aboriginal man died after being chased off a thirteen storey balcony by Redfern police. The recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody are still not being implemented.
In this initial encounter, paramedics chemically sedated Jack Kokaua and strapped him to a gurney, before taking him to Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. Kokaua was never actually transferred to their psychiatric ward after the emergency ward. Various media outlets have reported that Kokaua “broke out”, “fled” or “escaped”. I’m not sure if these journalists have ever been to a hospital, but Kokaua actually just walked out. A spokesperson for NSW Health said that he had been “calm and cooperative” for most of his stay but later became “agitated” and staff were unable to convince him to stay. No staff were injured; Kokaua simply left.
RPAH staff immediately called the police. There are no other policies in place for caring for scheduled patients, even if they have not committed any crimes, as was the case with Kokaua.
Witnesses said the police “erupted” into violence “out of nowhere”, and that between three and fifteen officers piled onto Kokaua while yelling “stop resisting, stop struggling”. The repeated tasering eventually induced cardiac arrest. None of the officers involved were wearing body cameras, although NSW issued tasers are equipped with cameras.
Given that Kokaua was at this point less than 350 metres away from the ambulance bay, it would have been much faster for paramedics to reach him than cops. Despite this, after his cardiac arrest it reportedly took ten minutes for medical assistance to arrive on the scene.
According to Jonathan Dunk, the lecturer whose class was visited by an angel, “He was confused but in no way violent. Nothing about this was deserved or necessary… This was a gross miscarriage of justice.”
Friends and family members expressed their grief on a notice posted to the Cook Islands Bereavement Notice’s & Memorials Facebook page.
The police, unlike every single other person who interacted with Jack Kokaua on Monday, described him as “aggressive and noncompliant”. Assistant Commissioner Walton said that “[t]he officers in this circumstance were acting to try and look after someone” and that Kokaua’s death was “not the outcome anyone looks towards and it’s certainly not what anyone wants.”
Clearly NSW Police are very confused about what it means to be helpful to someone experiencing an acute psychotic episode. As someone who has helped loved ones through psychotic episodes without accidentally murdering them in the process, generally the best approach is to be calm and comforting. Listen to the person. Ask them what they need and what you can do to help. Don’t try to participate in delusions/hallucinations but don’t try to break the person out of them either. Just hear them out. Ask if they want to talk about what they’re experiencing or if they want to change the subject. Maybe offer them a cup of tea. Say “that sounds scary”, or “I’m sorry this is happening to you.” Wait until it passes. If you don’t know them, ask if they have medication they need to take, or if there is someone they can contact (ideally a doctor, friend, or family member). As a general rule, don’t yell at them, tackle them to the ground, pepper spray them, and then repeatedly taser them until their heart gives out.
Jack Kokaua died metres away from my cardiologist’s office. She specialises in heart failure. This shouldn’t have happened anywhere, but it’s especially damning that it happened on the doorstep of a hospital.