My Manic Brush with the Law

I’m not embarrassed to let people know I have bipolar disorder. I never have been, ever since I got the diagnosis in my 23rd year as a teacher. But my brush with the law is something I kept very quiet about until now that I’ve retired. Just as many Americans have criminal records as have college diplomas. But that’s not true of teachers. They all have diplomas. But few have criminal records.

In 2009 I earned two misdemeanor convictions in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. I had to give a written explanation whenever I applied to renew my teaching license. Eventually I got the convictions expunged.

During my initial manic episode, I was attending a professional sporting event. I was in a restricted area and was escorted out by a security guard. I returned. He caught me again. It turned out that he was an off duty police sergeant. I was charged with trespassing and failure to obey a police officer. I didn’t know he was a police officer when I disobeyed him, but I did become loud and belligerent.

“You say one more word about your rights and I’m gonna tase you, boy.”

Southern law enforcement is something to take seriously. And spring break had just come and gone in Myrtle Beach, so the police were probably a quart low on patience. What alerted me to the fact that spring break had recently come and gone was that the large jail cell was empty, but it still carried the strong odor of beach party vomit.

Expungement wasn’t an option for many years.  I finally secured an expungement — at a price of $1100.  It’s a smaller sum than it would have cost to have a lawyer fight the charges at the time. The federal government and several state governments have enacted “fair chance” legislation in recent years so that prospective employees don’t have to reveal criminal records on applications.

One-third of our working age population has some sort of a criminal record. South Carolina, the scene of my particular crimes, finally  passed an expungement law in response to its tight labor market.  The legislature passed it over the veto of the governor.  One would think employers would loosen their own labor market by giving a chance to applicants with old and minor offenses on their records.  New attitudes about marijuana are also factoring into the new expungement laws around the country.

Our jails are largely mental institutions.  Standing on the front lines of society’s mental health challenges are our law enforcement officials.  But a new concept is developing called “therapeutic jurisprudence.”  Developed in 1997, there are now 300 mental health courts in this country. These courts, like drug courts, seek to address the underlying causes of much of the criminal behavior that plagued our society.

Broward County, Florida Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren decided to confront the problem of jail suicides by inmates with mental illness.  With the mental health court model, a team approach is taken to dealing with the offender.  The judge, defender, prosecutor, case managers, and treatment professionals work collaboratively as a team.

I can’t help feeling that the proliferation of these courts, while preferable to jailhouse suicides, is the direct result of underfunding of community mental health services.

I was lucky to be arrested and not killed.  Mental illness is involved in thousands of police shootings.  Roughly a quarter of them at least.  Perhaps up to half of them.  Let’s not forget the dozens of taser fatalities that involve individuals with mental illness.  Police escalate incidents, and they use excessive force.  Regularly.  Bipolar lives matter.  Schizophrenic lives matter.             

When George Floyd died at the hands (or knee) of a Minneapolis police officer in May of 2020, people across America rightly called for a re-examination of systemic racism and police brutality in our country.

But many people also called for defunding police departments. My reaction was and still is that we need to call for more funding. Better funding.  For training. Especially when it comes to dealing with people with mental illness. Many states require more training for hairdressers.