Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Another Police Shooting in Fairfax

Here we go again. Saturday’s Washington Post reports:

A Fairfax County officer shot a Herndon area man inside his home early Friday after he brandished a pistol at police, and his wounds were life-threatening, authorities said. The 25-year-old man was thought by neighbors to be mentally ill, and police said they had obtained an emergency custody order for him, which is typically used for mentally ill people in need of treatment.

My two previous blog pieces focused on the death of David Masters, gunned down in his vehicle by Fairfax County police in November. In late January, the prosecutor, citing David’s history of mental illness, announced his office would not be charging the police officer who fired the two shots.

A Facebook group page, Praying for Ian Smith, reports that Ian - the man shot in his home - has had three surgeries and will be undergoing a fourth. He was initially given little chance of survival and his situation remains critical. According to family member Hayley Smith posting on the page:

The only problem with the story is Ian did NOT in fact have a pistol. they claimed he was holding a weapon which they later found out was just a BB gun.

An empty BB gun, she noted in a follow-up post.

It seems conflicting accounts between the police and the public are not all that rare. I had my eyes opened to this two or three years ago, when at a psychiatric conference I happened to run into someone I had met in the course of my advocacy work when I lived in New Jersey.

We got talking and decided to grab a sandwich. Then he told me an amazing story. To protect his privacy, I’m going to obscure the facts concerning his identity:

“Jim” had just graduated with an advanced degree in a prestigious and lucrative field. He was looking forward to the beginning of what promised to be a long and rewarding career. Then, celebrating at his parents’ house, something crazy happened - he went crazy. He had a psychotic episode. He picked up a knife.

His parents, alarmed, called the police. Officers entered the house. A confrontation occurred. From the other end of the room, an officer shot Jim through the neck, narrowly missing an artery.

Jim pointed to the scar tissue on his neck. Many years after the incident, he is still struggling to get his life back. Had I not been rendered so speechless by Jim’s account, I might have asked some decent follow-up questions, the kind that are supposed to come naturally to journalists such as myself. Instead, I found myself flailing, grasping for words.

At last I recalled an article I had come across in the New York Times years back. The story concerned a young man, Gidone Busch, raving delusionally with hammer in hand, fatally gunned down by police. According to the police account, the man had been attacking one of the officers.

Jim laughed ruefully. The police version, he said. He wasn’t buying it. Not after what had happened to him. According to the police version, he had attacked the officer with a knife. Then, as he lay unconscious on the floor with his life bleeding out of him, the police moved the knife to make their story convincing.

I nodded knowingly. Who are you going to believe? The police or some nutjob wielding a deadly weapon? Especially if the nutjob, due to such issues as being dead, is unable to relate his side of the story.

Okay, some context:

In nearly all stories fellow patients have related to me, the police acted professionally. They were compassionate. They were diplomatic. They knew how to handle a tricky situation. And, instead of booking the individual, they admitted that person to a psychiatric facility.

A lot of the credit goes to Major Sam Cochran of the Memphis Police. Back in 1988, in the wake of highly publicized shootings involving individuals with mental illness, Mr Cochran drew the assignment of doing something about the situation. His department teamed up with NAMI and the University of Memphis and the University of Tennessee, pulled in other organizations and professionals, and together they organized a special unit called the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT).

As well as performing their standard police duties, these specially-trained officers respond to situations relating to mental illness. The police have always been first-responders to situations regarding the mentally ill, but their standard training often sets them up to fail.

A dramatic turn-around occurred soon after enough officers were trained and CIT became standard operating procedure in Memphis. Injuries went down, both for the mentally ill and police officers. So did arrests. So did complaints against the police. The police helped steer untreated individuals to psychiatric services. What was to become known as “The Memphis Model” was implemented in police departments nationwide.

At two different NAMI conferences, I went out of my way to introduce myself to Mr Cochran, shake his hand, and express my gratitude for making my world a much safer place. But in most departments, CIT is still a luxury, and in this economic climate a low priority. In 2008, the Fairfax police trained some officers in CIT, then stopped.

Now, one man is dead and another is in an uphill battle for his life. Words fail me ...


Anonymous said...

So you are saying the officer should have known, in a split second, that it was bb gun? I don't know what kind of bb pistol he had, but some of them are hard to tell frm the real thing.

John McManamy said...

Hi, Anonymous. I appreciate your comment. It least in this shooting, as opposed to the first, the officers involved actually saw an object at close quarters that very much resembled a deadly weapon.

Having said that, from what I can gather, the police were called precisely because Ian was seen with what looked like a gun. If these facts are correct, then there were no surprises.

Then we are allowed to question the circumstances of the police being in the house in the first place.

This is a police safety issue, as well, especially if we are placing an officer in a situation where he risks losing his own life. The right training with the right procedures is as important to the officer's safety as body armor, more so.

I'm looking to follow up on the story. Please stay tuned, and please feel free to keep commenting.

Anonymous said...

My only question is why do they have to shoot to kill..... Why can't they just shoot to disarm him? Very sad story... and most of them have no idea what it means to have a mental illiness.... Godbless Ian Smith... and may he recover!