DesMoines, Mental Health, and Policing: Separating the Greenes from the Bolingers

Today I’m participating (via remote) in the Iowa Justice Summit, sponsored by the Des Moines NAACP. I’ll be joined by a mental health professional and a person with mental disabilities to talk policing and mental health.

Of course, Des Moines policing is very much in the national news, thanks to the ambush and murder of two police officers (one in the city, one in a suburb). Scott Michael Greene, already dubbed a “loner” by his neighbors (and dutifully reported by the NYT), had a history of racism and angry encounters with people in his community and local police officers. He may also have had a history of mental health treatments, and I’m dreading the way that’s going to be stigmatized as the story moves forward.

A year ago, Ryan Bolinger was shot by a police officer through the window of her squad car. The officer determined – after a low-speed car chase and ample warning that this was likely a person in a mental health crisis – that Bolinger was “walking with purpose” towards her car and killed him. It’s true, as the Greene murders show, that Bolinger could have been a threat. But he wasn’t a threat. And there was no evidence that he was armed or violent.

So here’s the core question: How can officers distinguish the Greenes from the Bolingers? How can we hold officers accountable for killing unarmed civilians in mental health crises while enabling them to protect themselves from murderers? 

My overview:

  1. Racist violence is not caused by mental illness.
  2. People with mental illness are MUCH likely to be victims of violence rather than perpetrators of it.
  3. Non-compliance, on its own, should not be deemed a justification for escalation and use of lethal force.
  4. This will make police AND civilians safer, because when police needlessly escalate, they too get hurt.

Here’s the Bolinger story, as recounted in the local paper, reflecting the police narrative.

The bizarre fatal shooting occurred shortly after 10 p.m. June 9. Police said it began when Bolinger pulled alongside Officer Ian Lawler near Merle Hay Road and Aurora Avenue in northwest Des Moines.
Lawler had stopped another vehicle for a routine traffic violation when Bolinger pulled his car so close to Lawler’s that the officer could not open his vehicle door. Bolinger then got out of his car and acted “erratically,” police said.
Bolinger “was blocking traffic on Merle Hay Road, and Lawler kept yelling at him to pull into a nearby lot,” Wingert said. “He peeled out his tires and whipped into the lot. Lawler let the people in the vehicle he had already stopped go and followed Bolinger.”
Lawler pursued Bolinger in a brief chase that never exceeded 35 mph, traveling south down Merle Hay Road. Officer Miller joined the chase.
Bolinger made a U-turn and stopped abruptly near Urbandale Avenue and Merle Hay Road.
Lawler pulled his squad car in front of Bolinger’s vehicle. Miller pulled in behind.
“Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the time, a chase ends one of two ways,” Wingert said. “The suspect either gives up in the car or they run.”
In fact, Miller suspected a foot chase was about to ensue. When Bolinger’s vehicle stopped, Miller could be overheard on video of the incident saying, “We’re gonna run.”
But instead of fleeing, Bolinger moved directly toward the driver’s side door of Miller’s vehicle. Miller fired through her rolled-up window and struck Bolinger in the torso.
Bolinger, who was unarmed, died from his injuries.
Wingert said Miller had about a second to make a life-and-death decision.
“You have a suspect who has acted erratically and makes an aggressive move toward the officer’s car,” Wingert said. “The squad car isn’t a magic shield. If the suspect had had a gun, he could have shot her right through the window.”

The jury found the officer has objectively reasonable fear for her life.

Here’s Ryan Grimm, from HuffPo:

A few minutes before Des Moines police killed Ryan Keith Bolinger Tuesday night, the 28-year-old white man was dancing in the street, according to an officer. Police didn’t find the display funny. In a news conference Wednesday, Des Moines Police Sgt. Jason Halifax said Bolinger had earlier pulled up beside the squad car of an officer who was conducting an unrelated traffic stop, parking his 2000 Lincoln sedan so close that he blocked the police cruiser’s driver’s side door. Bolinger then left his vehicle and danced around before getting back in and driving away.

Officer Vanessa Miller, a seven-year veteran of the force, gave pursuit, following Bolinger in a low-speed chase that hovered around the 35 miles-per-hour limit, officials said. The Des Moines Register reports that Officer Ian Lawler, who had earlier been boxed in by Bolinger, radioed that he was joining Miller in the pursuit. He also suggested that they may be dealing with a drunk or mentally ill suspect.

About two minutes into the chase, Miller cut Bolinger off as he attempted to make a U-turn, forcing his car to a stop. Bolinger exited his vehicle and approached Miller’s squad car “walking with a purpose,” Halifax said. As he advanced, Miller, who is white, fired a single bullet through her rolled up driver’s side window, shattering the glass and striking Bolinger in the torso. He later died from the gunshot wound at a local hospital.

To me, here’s the key – The comments and descriptions of Bolinger suggest that the officers, having determined it was a mental health call, had ramped up their expectations of the possibility of violence, then acted fully lawfully in using lethal force with Bolinger didn’t comply as expected. We need to help officers perceive these events differently, because Bolinger was not in fact armed.

  • This may lead to some cases in which officers are too slow to deploy lethal force, and that’s dangerous for the officers.
  • But it will also lead to cases where police don’t pre-emptively escalate and make a situation needlessly violent, and that’s good for the officers. Every time something escalates, the officer is also at risk.
  • And it will lead to cases where police don’t pre-emptively escalate and kill or hurt civilians who need care, not violence.
Of course, the bigger story is crisis prevention, not crisis intervention, but that’s a much longer discussion.

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