An Intersection of America’s Ills

Renee Davis, five months pregnant and a single mother of three, was with her two children last Friday evening when King County sheriff’s deputies arrived at her home on the Muckleshoot Indian Reservation to perform a routine wellness check. Though it’s unclear what transpired between deputies’ arrival on the scene, the wellness check ended with Davis, 23, dead.


Davis, who struggled with depression, had earlier made a call to someone indicating she was contemplating suicide. The individual Davis contacted notified sheriff’s deputies, reporting that Davis was suicidal and armed with a gun, according to the Washington Post.

As reported by the Seattle Times, deputies saw Davis inside the home, with her two and three-year-old children, holding a handgun. At one point, deputies opened fire, with Davis struck at least once. Davis’s foster sister, Danielle Bargala told the Times that, while Davis was an avid outdoors person and owned a hunting rifle, she was unaware Davis had a handgun in her possession. Both deputies involved in the case, one an eight-year veteran of the sheriff’s department who has worked on the reservation, the other a three-year veteran of the King County Sheriff’s Department, have been placed on a routine paid administrative leave

Davis is now one of the 783 people shot and killed by law enforcement in 2016, and one of 32 who are women, according to the Washington Post’s Fatal Force database. Her death also closely follows that of Deborah Danner, a 66 year-old schizophrenic woman in New York City, shot by a police sergeant on October 18, after a scuffle in her apartment. New York City mayor, Bill de Blasio, called the killing “unacceptable” with New York City Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill echoing Mayor de Blasio’s denunciation of the NYPD’s mishandling of the incident.

Mental health is a less talked about area when it comes to indicators and understanding police brutality, both by the media and by law enforcement. According to the Chicago Tribune, six police departments nationwide, in Houston, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Madison, Portland, ME and at the University of Florida were recently singled out by the Council of State Governments Justice Center in partnership with the Department of Justice for their distinguished mental health programs.

While it’s still unclear what unfolded when sheriff’s deputies arrived at Davis’s home last week, Danner and Davis’s tragic deaths provide an important illustration of the ways violence at the hands of law enforcement intersects with mental illness. Danner, who was African American, and Davis, identified as Native American, both underscore the discussions of racial bias that have dominated headlines and planted the seeds of national introspection mixed with genuine anger and fear.

Davis’s case, in particular, adds heart to the matter for what it conveys not simply about racial profiling, but for the attention her death stands to draw to the circumstances that face many American women living on reservations. A complex series of governmental loopholes involving tribal courts, local law enforcement and attorneys for the federal government make prosecuting crimes that occur on American Indian territory challenging for both individuals and law enforcement.

Citing a study by the Department of Justice, in 2012 the New York Times reported crimes on American Indian reservations occur at rates two and a half times higher than the national average. According to a separate study by the Department of Justice, cited in a report by Futures Without Violence (FUTURES), a leading non-profit and policy-making organization dedicated to ending domestic violence and abuse, American Indian and Alaskan Native women also experience higher national incidence and lifetime prevalence rates of for physical assaults. These women were also more likely to be physically injured in these assaults than women of other groups and more likely to need medical care as a result of their injuries. The Department of Justice also reports that the American Native women are two and half times more likely to be raped than other women in the United States.

Other studies cited by FUTURES relay that the American Indians as a group have higher incidences of suicide, along with alcohol abuse and dependence, as well as mental distress. Though it remains to be seen how and if the deputies involved in Davis’s death will be disciplined following the King County Sheriff Department’s investigation, this episode of law enforcement presents what, in an ideal world, would be an unnecessary opportunity for officials and the public to consider the junctures of police procedure, mental health, women as targets of violence and the ubiquitous presence of guns in the American social landscape.



Lauren Young is a Ms. contributor. She has a Master’s Degree in European and Russian Studies from Yale University and a Bachelor’s Degree in Government and Russian Civilization from Smith College. Follow her on @thatlaurenyoung.