On April 15, 2021, Robbie Dale Bailey had a grand mal seizure while walking his autistic grandson to school. A concerned passerby called 911, and by the time police arrived, Mr. Bailey – a 53-year-old African American man – had regained consciousness. Video footage of the incident shows five police officers trying to handcuff Mr. Bailey, including one officer repeatedly punching him, and another kicking the side of his body. After successfully handcuffing Bailey, the police brought him to the ER where he was treated for broken and fractured ribs, and wounds to his neck, shoulder, head, hand, arm, and chest.
I have epilepsy. I lived with uncontrollable seizures for decades, until 2014 when I had brain surgery, which eventually stopped them. I too, have had passersby call 911 out of concern for my health. I can imagine the panic, embarrassment, and confusion Mr. Bailey felt as he emerged from his seizure-induced haze, even more palpable, as he was under attack. Thankfully I never experienced the police brutality he went through, and I am horrified to read about it.
Mr. Bailey’s story was in the news this April because he filed a lawsuit against the City of Minden, Louisiana, its mayor, police chief and the police officers involved in the incident. He claimed the officers used excessive force to arrest him after he had a seizure. He also challenged Minden Police Chief Steve Cropper’s claim that the use of force was justified, because Mr. Bailey was kicked in a part of his body that wouldn’t cause permanent damage.
Mr. Bailey’s is the second recent story I’ve read about a person with epilepsy suing the police for using excessive force against them during a seizure. Tiara Helm made the news in October 2021 when the Alabama Federal District Court handed down their final decision on her suit against the Rainbow City Police. A 17-year-old white girl, she was attending a rap concert with friends in Rainbow City, Alabama in January 2015. She had a grand mal seizure and collapsed, prompting someone to call 911. When she came to, four police officers had her pinned down. Disoriented and frightened, she begged them to let her go, and tried to escape, but the officers tightened their holds – one wrapped his arm around her neck in a headlock. A fifth officer arrived, armed with a Taser, which he threatened to use if she didn’t behave. Tiara cursed at him, and he tased her. She was taken to a nearby hospital where she was treated and released. I remember having seizures in front of my peers as a teen—the ultimate adolescent embarrassment. I can’t imagine the added humiliation and panic from police officers’ attacks.
In July 2015, Ms. Helm filed a civil rights lawsuit in Alabama’s Northern U.S. District Court, claiming the police officers used excessive force and falsely imprisoned her, and that three of them failed to intervene and protect her from the officers who restrained and tased her. Over the next six years, the police made multiple unsuccessful attempts to get the case dismissed arguing that they were protected under qualified immunity.
Ms. Helm’s case finally landed before a jury at the Anniston, Alabama federal courthouse in October 2021. Police officers testified that Ms. Helm fought them, cursing, spitting, kicking and trying to bite. The officer who tased her described Ms. Helm as “an out-of-control young lady” and “very aggressive.” He said that if his high-school aged son had acted like she had, he’d have allowed him to be shocked with Tasers to “straighten him out.” As he testified, the other officers exchanged smiles and snickered.
“They were being ugly to me,” said Ms. Helm crying, as she testified about the police. “They were mocking me, making fun of me.” She said one of them said they should tape her mouth shut with duct tape. “I felt very small, very humiliated, very insignificant. I felt like I was nothing.”
After three days of deliberations, the eight-person jury sided with the police. Jury foreperson Christine Cortez later reported she was the lone holdout in Ms. Helm’s favor. The other jurors “made it clear they weren’t comfortable destroying a life of an officer,” she said. During the six-year appeals process, Ms. Helm’s mental health spiraled downward. She abused drugs and used a razorblade to carve the words “why me” on the inside of her left forearm. But jurors’ concern about the officer superseded any accountability for his aggressions against Ms. Helm, or their impacts on her life.
While I’m disturbed by this, I am not shocked. Many people don’t understand what seizures are, or what it is like to experience them. And then there’s the archaic stigmatization of people with epilepsy: They’ve historically been characterized as possessed by demons or driven by the practice of witchcraft. While society has made significant strides over the millennia, as recently as 1955, it was illegal for people with epilepsy to get married in 17 states and Missouri kept that law on the books until 1980.
I’m glad Mr. Bailey filed his lawsuit, but Ms. Helm’s case leaves me pessimistic about his chances of winning. I fear the jury in his case will find his physical injuries, mental indignities, and grandson’s trauma less significant than the possible harm to the Minden police officers’ careers, and Mr. Bailey will lose. I’ve had many grand mal seizures. I know they’re terrifying to experience and to witness, which is why passersby feel compelled to call medics and authorities. But an aggressive response by officials is inappropriate and exacerbating. A person in the throes or coming out of a grand mal seizure is not in full control of their faculties. Violently restraining him/her is a common reaction driven by fear that can worsen the seizure.
These stories illuminate the critical need for police training on how to respond to people having seizures. Responders must rely on knowledge rather than panic when they’re called to scenes like these. Some trainings are available through the Epilepsy Foundation of America (EFA), a national nonprofit dedicated to supporting people with epilepsy. The EFA has 31 chapters across America. Their Utah, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania offices offer law enforcement trainings, their Alabama chapter – which also covers Louisiana – does not. An initial first action step is to ensure these trainings are accessible nationally. Sadly, even if trainings are put in place, they will likely not impact Mr. Bailey’s pending lawsuit.
Ms. Helm is white, and she was a minor at the time this incident took place, Mr. Bailey an African American man. While there has been much well-deserved attention paid to the strong connection between the high incidences of police brutality and racial bias, these cases demonstrate that bias due to a seizure-disorder crosses race, age, and gender lines. Police accountability is important to everybody’s safety.
Police brutality against those having seizures is largely prompted by a larger societal problem of ignorance about and fear of those experiencing them. Epilepsy is the fourth most common neurological disorder: Approximately 3.4 million Americans (1%) and 65 million worldwide have epilepsy, and 12.5 million Americans (3.8%) will experience it at some point during their lifetimes. Given epilepsy’s prevalence and the misunderstandings and fears associated with seizures, increased societal awareness – including police training – is critical.