What Happens When Your Crisis Response Creates a Worse Crisis?

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On the occasion, I come across something in the news that really grinds my gears so much that I have to set it aside to process it (lest a spouting rage-monster appear in my place). In this particular instance, it is the report of this horrific incident from the beginning of January.

The basic story begins, as many of us in the acute mental health profession are very familiar: A family member asking for assistance because their child is presenting as a danger to themselves or to others. In this case, an 18-year-old male having a schizophrenic episode, threatening his mother (by some reports, with a screwdriver). The family did what I, and many of my fellow therapists, have recommended to families in similar events; they called the police to help them get their son to a safe environment so that mental health professionals could help stabilize him. Perhaps this was a routine that the family was familiar with. Maybe they had called a crisis line, and had received a similar recommendation. I don’t know the details of why they ultimately decided to call the police that day. But of all the innumerable times that I have made this recommendation to families, I have never imagined that any of those cases would ever turn out the way that it did for this family.

The police shot him. Wait- First they tased him and pinned him to the ground. THEN one of the officers shot him. The officer was quoted by the above news medias as, “ We don’t have time for this,” before shooting the 5’5” (and under 100lbs) high school senior.

Here is the kicker- according to the above reports, the first officers on the scene had managed to de-escalate the situation. So why didn’t the story get to end there? What, if any, was the difference in the mental health training that the first officers had received verses the second responding officers? Better yet, was there any mental health training to begin with, and how could it have prevented this deadly outcome?

I don’t think that this tragedy will keep crisis workers or family from contacting the police when a family member is a danger to others or themselves. But, perhaps having crisis prevention teams who are connected with the local mental health centers, assisting to police in these types of calls would help; or at least some further de-escalation training for the force. But unless something changes, I would be hesitant to make that all-familiar recommendation to families again.

As for the officer who pulled the trigger in a claim of self-defense, he is due back in court in April.

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