From Houston Public Media:
Content Warning: The below story includes detailed discussion about acts of harm that police officials have deemed suicide, particularly among people of color. If you believe that you or someone you know is in crisis or emotional distress, The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a free, 24-7 counseling hotline: 800-273-TALK (8255)
Two hangings reported in the past week in Houston have some calling for increased investigation, despite reports from city and county officials that the two men died by suicide.
A man who Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo called “Hispanic/Caucasian” was found hanged Monday on Ella Boulevard near the 610 Loop, and the very next day, a black 17-year-old was found hanged outside a school in Spring. Few additional details were available as of Friday afternoon.
Police said foul play was not suspected in either of the Houston-area cases. According to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, the 17-year-old had a history of recent suicide attempts. The sheriff’s office added that security video of the school yard does not indicate foul play. Houston police said the Hispanic man’s family described him as suicidal.
But for some, especially those in the African American community, images of black men hanging from trees have been hard to accept as suicides.
Marco Robinson, who teaches American history at Prairie View A&M University, said his students are perplexed by the recent series of deaths.
“It coincides with what they’re reading in the textbook,” he said. “It’s one thing to consider something that’s a past event, and to actually experience these things happening in real time before your eyes.”
The Houston incidents followed at least three other highly publicized hangings of African Americans in California and New York.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, called on the FBI to investigate in a press release this week.
“These cases must be thoroughly investigated and proven beyond a reasonable doubt,” the congresswoman said in a statement to the press.
The statement also identified Monday’s victim as black, though city officials have confirmed the man was Hispanic.
Robinson said he was not surprised that many people are skeptical of the official determination that these cases were suicides.
“With that culture already existing and people being able to make those nominative assessments about what occurred based upon what we’ve experienced as a community over long periods of time, that’s one reason why they jumped to that conclusion,” he said.
According to the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences, there were 512 suicides in the county in 2018. Of those, about 131 – or 26% – were death by hanging. That’s more than one every three days, and most do not make the news. According to the Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide, developed for journalists by public health and suicide prevention experts, research has shown that some news coverage can lead to an increase in suicide among those already vulnerable.
But adding to skepticism about the Houston deaths is not just the method, but the location: Kayla Johnson, staff psychologist at Prairie View A&M, said it’s rare for people to die by suicide in a public place.
“It’s so uncommon that you can literally pinpoint the incidents that have happened publicly, so I don’t think that this is a normal, everyday occurrence,” she said.
Added to the general public skepticism is an environment of distrusting law enforcement, during a time of nationwide protests against police brutality.
But for that very reason — with so much upending peoples’ lives — suicides may increase, Johnson said.
“With everything that’s going on, I’m pretty sure that – the pandemic, losing jobs and unemployment, just the rising tension with racism in the country – that those events are probably someone’s last straw,” Johnson said.