Korryn Gaines’s Silent Killer: Lead Poisoning

How many times was Korryn Gaines failed by an unjust system?

On Monday, August 1, in Randallstown, Maryland (a suburb of Baltimore City), 23-year-old Korryn Gaines was shot and killed in her home by police officers. Gaines was allegedly wielding a shotgun and holding her 5-year-old son when police officers entered her residence using a key provided by the landlord. Warrant officers were sent to her property to arrest both Gaines and Kareem Kiean Courtney, 39, who lived with her.

“Gaines is the ninth Black woman shot and killed by police so far in 2016, according to a Washington Post database tracking fatal police shootings — a number set to soon surpass 2015, when a total of 10 Black women were shot and killed by police.” — Wesley Lowery, “Korryn Gaines, cradling child and shotgun, is fatally shot by police” for Washington Post

The known facts of this case are the police were sent to the home of Korryn Gaines, a 23-year-old mother, and her 5-year-old son to issue an arrest warrant. The two were shot after police entered her home following a nearly six-hour standoff. Almost every other detail is provided by the police.

Police state they first fired a shot at Gaines, she returned fire, then officers shot her to death. Which party shot Gaines’s son has not been determined, “…this is a situation where our officers exercised patience for hours and hours," a police spokesperson said. "We are very relieved the child was not seriously injured.” Somehow this reads as, “We ran out of patience so we shot her to death.”

Since when is getting shot not a serious injury? Stubbing your toe on a chair leg is not a serious injury. There’s no need to go to a hospital and if you do, you could probably drive there under your own power. You certainly won’t need to be taken by ambulance — it’s not that serious.

“At a news conference Tuesday, Chief Jim Johnson said Facebook suspended Gaines' account during the negotiations at their request.” — "The Latest: Facebook suspended account during standoff," AP

However, recordings from Gaines are being widely circulated on social media. One clip depicts an officer standing in her foyer dressed in riot gear and holding a gun pointed in her direction. There are no videos available from the county police, who began using body-worn cameras in July of this year.

Following the death of Freddie Gray, Baltimore rolled out a $12.5M program to outfit their officers with recording devices by 2018. This effort was largely seen as a triumphant response to calls from the Black Lives Matter movement for police accountability and transparency. Body-worn cameras provide the proverbial “instant replay” for police encounters. However, solutions of this nature are only effective if they are implemented.

“I’m not anti police, I’m anti police brutality.”  — Marilyn Mosby

Traditionally, Black parents hold conversations informing their children how to engage police officers out of fear for their survival. Suspicion from Black families towards police officers is not new, as our communities have long been plagued with police violence. The proliferation of videos of police encounters resulting in unlawful shooting deaths of people of color highlights these concerns.

Bearing witness to a police shooting is traumatic, whether watching a recording or filming one. The effect of continuous exposure to police violence visited on people of color has not been thoroughly studied. It’s not unreasonable, then, to think this certainly frays a historically tense relationship.

However, much speculation abounds regarding Gaines’s mental health; her social media posts from a March traffic stop depict her berating police officers and decrying continuous harassment. Many feel her behavior toward police exacerbated the situation. Court records show she was diagnosed with lead poisoning, which can cause brain damage and lead to developmental delays.

If Gaines was acting out due to lead paint poisoning, doesn't that mean the system failed her at least twice? Clearly this is an intersectional issue: the failures of elected officials to protect impoverished children from lead-based paint and police being called to resolve issues with impacted people absent of proper training and consideration of their impairments.

Lead poisoning hasn’t garnered enough attention aside from the Flint Water Crisis. Cities like Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, D.C. and Trenton have all been impacted by the use of lead in our nation’s infrastructure and lead-based paint in buildings. New Jersey State Senate President Stephen Sweeney even said, “The water got everyone's attention. The paint has always been an issue.” 

Children diagnosed with lead poisoning have been known to demonstrate aggressive behaviors, an inability to focus and ADHD. These behavioral issues make schooling difficult without appropriate services and special needs educators in place. Inadequate supports in classrooms for kids with developmental disabilities leave teachers with the difficult decision to remove the disruptive children from their classrooms.

Kids frequently removed from classrooms often leads to suspensions, which follow them on their permanent records. Kids found outside of school with a pattern of suspensions give truant officers cause to place them into the foster system. This vicious cycle of children being born into poverty; becoming exposed to lead poisoning as infants, causing brain damage, or suffering undiagnosed developmental disorders; being sent to underperforming schools without adequate special needs resources and then being penalized for their disability once they disrupt classrooms is the school to prison pipeline in execution.

This problem is not going anywhere soon.

“Although Baltimore has achieved a 98 percent reduction in childhood lead poisoning since 1993, there are still 535,000 children between the ages of one and five being poisoned each year in the U.S. Lead poisoning is even more endemic to poor black communities, which are less likely to be able to afford newer, lead-free homes than wealthier communities.” — Aria Bendix, “Why Lead Paint Still Haunts Industrial Cities in the U.S.” for CITYLAB

It wasn’t until 1978 that the federal government banned the use of lead paint in consumer products. Even then, there was still a lack of accountability from those developing products that poisoned children.

“The lead industry even sought to place the blame for [the] lead poisoning epidemic on parents and children, claiming that the problem was not with the lead paint but with the 'uneducable Negro and Puerto Rican' parents who 'failed' to stop children from placing their fingers and toys in their mouths.” — David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz, “Why It Took Decades of Blaming Parents Before We Banned Lead Paint” for The Atlantic

Far too often mental health issues are left to police officers to resolve due to the public’s lack of awareness of the pervasiveness of this problem and failure of advocacy programs to gain traction. But, with police officers improperly trained to do anything aside from detain citizens and discharge their service weapons, outcomes become predictable.

This issue recently came to light in the shooting of Charles Kinsey, a behavioral therapist who was shot while attempting to assist his 27-year-old autistic patient in crisis. The officer involved later admitted he mistakenly shot Kinsey and was instead aiming for his patient.

Does a diagnosed mental disability and refusal to be detained warrant an execution? Has our nation become conditioned to the American police state, reflexively finding that non-compliance is deserving of a death sentence? Certainly Gaines’s suspicion of the police is not unfounded. In her final video she mentions to her now orphaned son that the police are trying to kill them.

Had we simply taken the officer’s account in the Walter Scott murder, we never would have known that he was shot repeatedly while attempting to flee. We wouldn’t have known Scott was unarmed or that Officer Michael Slager planted a weapon at his side after shooting him to death. We wouldn’t have known anything aside from the false narrative offered by Officer Slager.

The unfortunate thing is people largely think these things don’t happen, and when they do, they only happen to other people. Rushing to judgment to justify the death of anyone is a dangerous practice, particularly when there are countless shootings of unarmed citizens and numerous examples of officers' falsified testimony. Perhaps it’s time to make considerations outside of those offered by the ones doing the shooting.

Considerations like an investment in public assistance programs focused on mental health awareness and advocacy would go a long way. Supports for people with a history of mental health issues or diagnosed with behavioral issues could prevent needless executions. There are so many options other than senseless shootings of people in crisis, maybe this is just a Black issue.

“Now, what we’ve been doing is looking at the data. And we know that police somehow manage to de-escalate, disarm and not kill white people every day.”  — Jesse Williams

Russ Green is a contributing writer for, comedian, husband, and father of four from Washington, DC. The Howard University graduate has opened for Alycia Cooper, Ms. Pat, and Tony Woods. Additionally, he has performed at The Laughing Skull in Atlanta, GA, The Knitting Factory in Brooklyn, NY, The Black Cat, The Howard Theatre, and was the winner of DC Improv's Comedy Kumite V.1. Russ's past productions have been featured in the DCistEagle and Washingtonian. His debut comedy sketch earned over 80K views on World Star Hip Hop, and his Banana Bread Muffin recipe is renowned.

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