Police departments across the United States have done a good job of instituting training on response to mentally ill people in crisis. Included with these courses are usually de-escalation techniques as well as partnering with mental health professionals in their response.
However, it has to be understood that when police officers respond to these types of calls the encounters are usually dynamic, fluid, and emotionally charged. These are situations that frequently require a quick and immediate response and split-second decision making.
Take, for example, what happened to a Richmond, VA police officer last week. The officer attempted to pull over a car involved in several hit-and-runs. After a brief chase, the vehicle crashed.
Despite commands not to get out of the vehicle, the driver exits. The officer is confronted with a nude man who is ranting and raving, and runs into traffic, where he is struck by a vehicle. He then flails on the ground as he continues to rant.
The officer calmly updates the dispatcher in a calm voice, saying, “Male seems to be mentally unstable as we speak.”
He then awaits follow-up while arming himself with his Taser. The driver gets up off the ground and approaches the officer, saying, “Back the f*** up, put that Taser down or I’ll kill you.”
The officer backs away, not seeking a confrontation, and orders the man not to approach.
That’s when it happens. The officer is attacked by a naked man experiencing a severe psychotic episode. There’s no chance for de-escalation. No chance to use his words. No follow-up to help physically restrain him.
The officer is struck several times and then uses his firearm to stop the threat to his safety. The driver later passed away from what were described as two gunshot wounds to the abdomen.
The family and others have been openly critical of the officer. The driver’s sister said in an interview, “He needed help.”
My own opinion is that the officer did an amazing job of surviving. He attempted to de-escalate and didn’t say or do anything to exacerbate the intense encounter. He remained calm and waited for help. He attempted to use a less lethal level of force. Despite his efforts, the officer ended up in a situation where he had to make a life-or-death decision.
Critics have pointed out the driver was unarmed, but unarmed does not mean not dangerous. Many unarmed people have killed and or seriously injured others just using their hands and feet.
What is the mindset of an individual who will attack a uniformed police officer? In this case, the driver had already exhibited extreme behavior. You see, every police officer brings a gun to a fistfight. If they lose that fistfight, they potentially lose their life. Is the person strong enough to physically overpower the officer? Does the officer have the confidence in their self-defense skills to overcome the attack and subdue the person? These are the questions that run through the officer’s mind in a matter of microseconds.
This officer had already seen the man get hit by a car, and then get back up. He had used a Taser to no effect, and he tried to back away. Only after he was set upon without provocation the officer decided to use deadly force.
In a effort to be transparent, the Richmond Police Department released the body cam video of the complete encounter, editing only certain parts of the man’s body.
Of course Monday morning quarterbacks will provide a multitude of scenarios saying the officer should have done this or said that. The critics have the easy job of criticizing when their pulse rate isn’t up over a hundred beats per minute and their fight-or-flight reflex is releasing adrenaline like crazy.
Richmond Police Chief Alred Durhan has asked for patience and has offered sympathies to the family of the man. In an interview with CBS 6 news, he stated, “We are wearing a lot of hats and when incidents like this happen and folks want to beat us up over it, it hurts. It hurts the morale of my officer. It hurts me.”
I think the officer did the best he could in the midst of a tragic set of circumstances. Despite what the critics say, he should be glad to be alive to spend another day with his family.
Joe is a retired captain. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.