A week ago, Kawaski Trawick called 9-1-1. He said he was locked out of his apartment in the Bronx, N.Y., and that it was on fire. Soon after, firefighters responded and broke through the door only to find the apartment was not ablaze, so they left. But in that moment, friends and advocates say Trawick, 32, was having a mental health episode, walking around his apartment building banging on doors with a large stick and a knife. He lived at Hill House, a social services center for people living with mental health issues and addiction, according to the New York Daily News.
Police officers responded to two calls from neighbors worried about Trawick’s behavior. When police arrived to his home, they opened his door. They say he charged at them with a knife and the stick. An officer used a Taser gun, but when it didn’t stop him, an officer shot him four times in the chest with a firearm. Trawick, who is bisexual, died later that night at Bronx Lebanon Hospital.
"This was an individual who was experiencing emotional distress and he needed help and not a bullet to the chest," Vocal NY organizer Jason Walker said to NY1 on Monday during a vigil for Trawick coordinated by members of the NYC Anti-Violence Project, Communities United for Police Reform, and Vocal NY’s Justice Committee. Another advocate asked, “Why did they call the police? When people call the police, they know exactly what they're doing. They called the police because they felt that his life didn't matter.”
According to Gay City News, Carolyn Martinez-Class, a spokesperson for Communities United for Police Reform said, “Reports from the local community in the Bronx and those on the scene suggest Kawaski was not a threat to anyone when police arrived at his building. Instead, he was in his room, possibly in a state of emotional distress. His death was preventable.”
Black people are statistically more likely to face police brutality or be killed by police. But people with untreated mental illnesses also face startling statistics when it comes to police violence: As German Lopez reported for Vox in 2016, this group is 16 times more likely to be killed by police than the average person. Overall, Trawick’s death shows how mental healthcare is generally underfunded. It also drives home how the criminal justice system is forced to fill in the gaps, where services to help people may be inadequate — often, the results can be fatal.
“Our community came together last night seeking answers to our questions,” Eliel Cruz, AVP’s Director of Communications, told Out in a statement. “Right now all we know is that Kawaski Trawick was a 32-year-old queer Black man who was shot and killed by police, in his own home, and that he should be alive today. It’s imperative that NYPD release the names of the officers involved, that they release the body camera footage that was taken the day of the shooting, and that the Attorney General’s office assert jurisdiction as special prosecutor to investigate this case. This must happen swiftly and transparently for our community. Kawaski needed support, not a bullet to the chest.”
When you consider the fact that LGBTQ+ people are three times more likely to have a mental condition than the general population, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, this is a particularly troubling problem for the queer community, which is also highly likely to deal with a disproportionate amount of police conflict. Half of LGBT survivors of violence who then interacted with police said they experienced police misconduct, including unjustified arrest, use of excessive force, and entrapment, according to the Williams Institute, an LGBTQ public policy think tank.
For another example, Scout Schultz, a 21-year-old nonbinary student at Georgia Tech who was shot by a campus police officer in 2017. Police received a call, made by Schultz, who claimed there was a suspicious, possibly intoxicated person with a knife and gun, on campus. When they responded to the call, they found Schultz, who had previously attempted suicide in their dorm room. While it was never confirmed whether Schultz had been dealing with suicidal thoughts that night, it is believed the call may have been related.
When police asked Schultz to put down the multipurpose tool they had, Schultz did not comply. An officer fired one shot and Schultz died within 30 minutes.
Since Schultz’s death, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports, Georgia Tech has since undergone several changes to reform the ways police deal with people with mental illnesses. For one, it turned out that the Georgia Tech officers did not have Tasers, which has now changed. They’ve all also been trained on crisis intervention; the officer who shot Schultz had not completed CIT training at the time of the shooting.
The NYPD itself, in 2016, established guidelines for confronting people with mental illnesses or those they deem “emotionally disturbed.” According to a protocol shared with Out by the NYPD, “Deadly physical force will be used ONLY as a last resort to protect the life of the uniformed member of the service assigned or any other person present. If the emotionally disturbed person (EDP) is armed or violent, no attempt will be made to take the EDP into custody without the specific direction of a supervisor unless there is an immediate threat of physical harm to the EDP or others are present.”
For Trawick in the Bronx, advocates are calling for police to release body camera footage from the event. In a public statement, NYPD Chief of Department Terence Monahan said, “we will continue to share new information from this ongoing investigation as it becomes available.”
Meanwhile friends and neighbors are looking for answers. A friend Victor Jennings told the Daily News he was struggling on many fronts. “He had a mental health problem,” Jennings said through tears. “I kept telling him, instead of doing drugs, take your meds.”
Another friend, Anthony Smallwood told the Daily News that they worked together at a health clinic for addicted youth, which is where Trawick also received HIV medication. “His family threw him out because of his sexuality," Smallwood told the Daily News. "He was bisexual. We’re both bisexual. He’s the one that helped me come out.”