Police Shoot and Kill Mentally Ill Native American Man

On July 12 of this year, Denver police shot and killed Paul Castaway, a mentally ill Lakota Sioux man. His case raises awareness of two issues that are flying under the radar in the ongoing national conversation about police shootings: Over half of fatal shootings involve mentally ill people, and Native Americans are statistically more at risk of dying in police shootings than other racial groups. Castaway’s traumatic and horrific death is riveting his Denver community, and his last words are a haunting indictment of law enforcement in the United States: “What’s wrong with you guys?”

According to family members and witnesses, Castaway’s mother Lynn Eagle Feather called the police for help when her son started waving a large knife while he was intoxicated. This is often the first step in fatal incidents involving police officers and mentally ill people — frequently people are off their medications or experiencing breakthrough episodes of breaks with reality and other mental health problems. They may not be fully aware of what they’re doing and they pose a greater risk to themselves than others, but family members aren’t equipped to provide the help they need. Since few communities have a mental health crisis response unit, families resort to calling police in the hopes that officers can subdue their family members and help them get to treatment.

As is commonly the case, that didn’t happen for Castaway. When officers responded, the terrified man ran into a mobile home park around the street, where officers cornered him. Witnesses and family who had access to surveillance tapes claim that he was holding the knife to his neck, while police claim that he was posing a threat to officers, so he was shot four times, later dying at the hospital. Chillingly, witnesses report that he was forced onto his stomach and cuffed after being shot, despite his severe injuries. The much-loved member of the community left behind a son as well as other family members.

Advocates have risen in protest against the shooting — over 100 people rallied in downtown Denver to raise awareness of the shooting and ask for justice. His family is demanding full copies of video related to the shooting, and families of some of the witnesses are asking for counseling as well. Many of those who saw the shooting were children at play who were traumatized by the sight of law enforcement chasing and shooting a man right in front of them, especially when it was followed by brutal handling on the ground as he was put into cuffs. Members of the Colorado Chapter of the American Indian Movement, meanwhile, have rallied in front of the Denver Police Department to ask for answers.

Even when alerted to the fact that a subject is mentally ill — as happened in this case — police officers often respond poorly, illustrating the need for better protocols and training in addition to the long-term development of mental health crisis units. Cuts to mental health support services in the United States have left police forces on the front lines of providing support to the mentally ill community, and sometimes this involves paying a high price. Notably, Native Americans experience mental illnesses at a higher rate than the general population, putting them at greater risk of police interventions gone wrong.

Even without mental illness as a compounding factor, Native Americans frequently die at the hands of U.S. police. Though they account for .8 percent of the population, 1.9 percent of police shootings involve Native Americans. The black community makes up 13 percent of the population and 25 percent of police shootings — a truly shocking statistic — but in terms of death per million people annually, Native Americans rank perturbingly high on the list. While black people between 20 and 24 die at a rate of 7.1 per million, Native Americans between 25 and 34 follow close behind at 6.6, and 35-44 year old Native Americans are the next largest category of those who die in fatal shootings. The horrible statistics on police encounters for the Native community need to be addressed as part of a larger push for reforms in American policing, but the movement to talk about Native deaths hasn’t yet expanded nationally. Maybe Castaway’s encounter will act as the tipping point, rather than slipping below the surface of his small community.

Photo credit: Martin Thomas

125 comments

Jim Ven
Jim V3 years ago

thanks for the article.

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Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus3 years ago

Thank you for sharing!

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Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill3 years ago

If someone has a weapon and/or threatening the officers they have to shoot to protect themselves and the public. Most cops do NOT want to shoot someone, it is very traumatic for anyone who kills someone.

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Will Rogers
Will Rogers3 years ago

Historical/modern European migrants, owes the Native American rent. We have no right to tell them how to live their lives, but they DO have the right to tell us what to do while we are in their country. They should have never believed our promises, and they should not trust us now, we are not there for their benefit. We see ourselves as the ultimate authority but that is just arrogance because we killed them until there was a manageable number that we could control easily, to subjugate and oppress instead of treating them like royalty! But that's what we do! Look at Australia! Same thing! We even tried it in Africa but there were too many of them, yes we killed millions, enslaved millions too, experimented on them and because they were more passive than us labeled them as uncivilised!
We owe them rent and reparations and we should leave their lands unless we can live fantastically with them. Just 'living' with them is a burden to them, and frankly... I don't think we are able to control our aggression, passive or otherwise.

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Robert Hamm
Robert Hamm3 years ago

Ernest........I have disarmed a number of people with a knife and even more with a gun during my years in nam.....all without shooting them. If you think there is no way to do it then you have little or no experience in this matter.

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Ernest R.
Ernest R3 years ago

@ Amy T."If a mentally ill person has a knife, stay 6 feet away!" Thanks for the advice. If he is that close, you have almost a guarantee that the knife can be in you unless you have a gun already loaded, cocked, and pointed with a finger on the trigger. Try it. That is part of essential police training.

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Jane R.
Jane R3 years ago

It makes no difference if the person is mentally ill or not. They can and do cause harm to others even though they aren't aware of this. The police have to protect their own lives and the lives of others any way they can, but most of the time they use deadly force when it's not necessary. This is such a shame. They need to be taught to have more respect for others and not use their badge as a means to kill when it can be prevented.

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Ernest R.
Ernest R3 years ago

@ Deborah W. "Lakotas among other native Americans have, from the get-go, been screwed royally, ignored, abused and reduced to what's left". That is putting it too mildly. An original treaty was broken by the US as soon as trespassers found gold on Lakota territory. Following Custer's failed genocide attempt, they were hounded from one place to the other while their food supply, bison, was systematically destroyed. A temporary refuge in Canada was ended for political reasons and they were returned to a waiting US cavalry and relocated in reserves, really concentration camps where they were given rotten beef to eat. They are still there in poverty and treated as sub humans on visits to town. Their sacred mountain has been "improved" by gigantic carved faced of "great white father"

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Deborah W.
Deborah W3 years ago

His last words, "what's wrong with you guys" is a haunting indictment of law enforcement in the Divided States, really?

Back up a little - no, a lot. Lakotas among other native Americans have, from the get-go, been screwed royally, ignored, abused and reduced to what's left. Add to that a sudden awakening to the fact that mental illness is real, a matter needing special attention and care.

To pin all blame on one small group, when many shared ownership, is just plain wrong. Root causes come under examination first, with attention to needed help next ... all before the end game of blame can be shared honestly.

Same goes for ALL labels and categories. What say you ...

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Deborah W.
Deborah W3 years ago

Don't know how the previous comment popped up here, just plugged in to begin creating my comment ... WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED?

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