Mental Health and Policing – One Day’s News

Yesterday, CNN published a piece of mine on the death of Kristiana Coignard. Here’s how she died [warning – the video is very disturbing, so follow the link with caution]:

In late January, Kristiana Coignard, a seventeen-year-old woman with bipolar disorder and depression, walked into the police department in Longwood, Texas, with “I have a gun” written on her hand. She also had a knife in her waistband. Officer Glenn Derr approached her, read her message, and quickly restrained her. He then let her go, restrained her on the floor, then let her go again as two other officers entered the scene.

On the surveillance video that the department released, you can see the moment in which Coignard decides to die. She raises her knife and charged at Derr, who shoots, as does one of the other officers. The third officer deploys a TASER, but by then it was too late. She lies on the floor for a few minutes until emergency medical services arrive.

What lessons do we draw this death? I write:

When police misread the circumstances of encounter with an individual with mental health crisis, the possibility for violence rapidly escalates. The only solution is for law enforcement to try to stabilize every encounter, to the extent possible, as if it involved psychiatric disability.

I further suggest that just as police are likely to be over-aggressive when confronting black men, here they were under-aggressive, and that proved just as dangerous. Consistent stabilization tactics must be applied in all circumstances, rather than only when police are fully aware of a mental health crisis. The good news is that many law enforcement officers around the country are practicing just this. The bad news is that too many people are still dying.

I have various searches that deliver articles to me about the intersections of disability and policing. Every day, I read about deaths, trials, exoneration, commitments, and new ideas for training. Here’s just a partial skimming of yesterday’s news

Phillipsburg, New Jersey – Police shooting of man with a knife in mental health crisis ruled justified.

According to Burke, someone from Read’s mental health provider, Bridgeway Rehabilitation Services, had called 911 after Read’s landlord reported receiving a threatening letter with photos. Burke did not immediately have information on the contents of the letter.
Officials said that when police arrived at the home Read refused to leave his first floor apartment and was holding a knife.
“Police were able to enter the home and confront the individual. Mr. Read refused to comply with police orders to drop the knife, advanced at the officers and was subsequently shot,”officials said in a press release today.

My question – why enter the home? Was Read actually threatening anyone from inside his apartment? Why not invest the scene with patience, rather than charging in. Once the officers had entered the home, Read’s death was guaranteed.

No charges for Michigan police who shot Aura Rosser, a woman holding a knife and in mental heath crisis.

Rosser lived with her boyfriend, Victor Stephens. The night of her death, Stephens called 911 and asked police to “come and get her,” according to a memo released by the prosecutor’s office. He said he had locked himself in a room and that “she jumped on [him].” He also said he might need an ambulance for his hand.

When Ried and his partner Mark Raab arrived at Stephens’ home, they heard a woman say she had a knife and a man respond, “What are [you] gonna do, stab me?” according to the memo. They then heard a loud thump and entered the home through the front door to find Rosser and Stephens struggling. Rosser was attempting to attack Stephens with a knife while he fended her off, the document states.

When officers ordered her to drop the weapon, she turned on them and advanced, they said, with “her eyes wide open with what appeared to be a blank stare.” Raab used a Taser on Rosser at the same time Ried fatally shot her once in the chest.

“The fact that Officer Raab chose to draw his Taser does not make Officer Ried’s decision to draw his sidearm a criminal act,” the memo states. “The law of self-defense does not require that the least harmful means be employed before a more harmful level of force may be lawfully used.”

This is a more difficult situation, strategically, as Rosser clearly was threatening Stephens at the time, forcing an intervention by police. I don’t know enough about the timing and layout to know whether the TASER could have been used first before firing. If I hadn’t read hundreds of these kinds of reports, I’d assume the officers had no choice. But I have read hundreds of these reports, and too often the officers place or keep themselves in proximity to the victim, allowing them to threaten the officers and thus drawing fire.

Mental health is cited explicitly in only one of these dozen officer-involved shootings in midstate Pennsylvania counties, but reading through some, I have my suspicions that others also involved psychiatric disabilities. The one is important, though:

March 14, 2012: Samuel Snyder, 57, was fatally shot by police at the end of a 14-hour stand-off that began when state troopers appeared at his North Annville Township home to involuntarily commit him for mental health treatment. Police said one officer was wounded and that Snyder fired 40 to 60 bullets during the standoff.

So, Snyder had a gun and held the officers at bay for fourteen hours. It’s hard to argue with this one on an immediate tactical level. Instead, we’d have to look at the failings of our mental health systems that let matters escalate to this level.

Last November, a Shelby Township man suspected of psychiatric disability barricaded himself inside his house and held police at bay for over two hours. He fired three shots, but was taken peacefully into custody. Now:

A mental evaluation has been ordered for a 46-year-old Shelby Township man accused of holding police at bay in his home for more than two hours last November.

Bobby Jo Grimes will undergo an evaluation to determine whether he is fit to face charges of attempted murder, felon in possession of a firearm, felony firearm and resisting arrest for the Nov. 11 incident near Ryan and Auburn roads. The exam was approved last week by Judge Douglas Shepherd of 41A District Court in Shelby Township.

That’s one day’s news.

Lately, I’ve been told that the intersection of policing and disability is a niche issue, not a big societal concern. I’ve had trouble getting traction for some of my stories and pitches as a result.

It’s not, though. The niche is us. The niche is humanity. We’re all in it, and if not today, then tomorrow, or the next one, as our bodies age and change, as family members are diagnosed, as we come to understand the limitations our conception of normal.

Tomorrow, there’s going to be more news, and whether it makes the news or not, soon another death.

9 Replies to “Mental Health and Policing – One Day’s News”

  1. bob vanbuskirk says:

    i worked with people who have mental problems such as the ones you mention in your story.i often have wondered the same things,i had to take training on how to handle situations just like the ones the officers had to deal with such as how to disarm a person with a knife.i had no gun that i could easily draw and shoot the person and be in the right legally.there is no rush when dealing with a person with a mental handicap.but when a police man comes and he has a gun then it seems like that's the only thing or way you can deal with the person.the case of this girl dieing should have never gotten to that point.handcuff her when you had the chance and pat her down and take the knife.seems like the logical thing to do.outdoors with retreat to a safe location and engage the person if possible .go to any group home,see how they handle there training for cases like this.then use that training when dealing with a disabled person.

  2. The Illinois Model says:

    This is a delicate balance: act early and control the situation or force a confrontation? or exercise restraint and allow the person to either calm down or flip completely out of control?

    That is a critical decision for police officers (or any first responder…teacher…nurse…bystander…..). To me, it all comes down to understanding the complexity of the situation, from years of responding to mental health crisis of persons both armed/homicidal and passively non-compliant.

    David, thanks for hosting the discussion in your blog.


  3. Tanker says:

    I just read your piece of CNN. Your mother must be very proud of you.
    However, I see from your bio that you are not a police officer, mental health professional, lawyer, or doctor. You are a history teacher.
    I was a police officer and I am currently in the field of mental health. Given my experience, you'd think I'd have very strong opinions or profound insights into these situations, but I don't.
    That is because my experience and training, from both fields, has taught me that these situations are far too complex and dynamic to allow for glib answers.
    I guess because you lack expertise, you don't feel quiet as constrained as I do.
    All the same, in academia writing about tragedy from a position of ignorance is not considered a fault, as long as it gets you published.
    So, good for you.

  4. David Perry says:

    Hi Tanker. I've been working on this topic for years now. I'm sorry you didn't like the piece. Do you have any substantive criticisms, or are you only interested in ad hominem ones?

    P.S. My mother is very proud of me, yes.

  5. Tanker says:

    It's very nice that you have been “working on this topic”, whatever that means.

    My constructive criticisms boil down to these points:

    Don’t confuse the advantage of time and distance with having insight. You were not attacked, the officers were. They were in that moment and your commentary on it, absent insight, is of very little value.

    Don’t confuse outcome with agency. The Officers fired, yes. But, in reviewing the video tape that young lady waited in the lobby of the police station to provoke the incident. Further, when the officers initially responded with a lower level of force she escalated until she obtained her goal, suicide by cop.

    Don’t confuse a negative outcome with error or misconduct. Forgive me, but the young lady obtained the result she wanted, to be killed. The Officers obtained the goal they wanted, to be uninjured by her suicide attempt. Everything else is your perspective superimposed on your interpretation of their actions.

    Don’t confuse the end of the story with the story. It’s most likely that this young lady had been experiencing psychological distress for quite some time. There were opportunities for her to seek help, opportunities for her loved ones to get her help and lastly she didn’t need to go to the police station that evening. The police’s involvement with this young lady lasted minutes, at the very end of her life AFTER she had clearly decided to die that evening.

    Don’t confuse being an advocate with pure intentions with having something to contribute to the discussion. It brings nothing to the discussion to say “that was awful.” It also brings nothing to the discussion to say “I have no experience, training, or specific insights, but let me share my thoughts with you because I mean well.”

  6. David Perry says:

    My piece and larger body of work has plenty of specific insights. Sorry you don't like them. Our mental health system and the way police respond to people potentially in mental health crisis both need radical transformation. I expect I know a lot more about some of these aspects than you, and perhaps less about other aspects than you.

    If you can be polite, I'll be happy to discuss. But this is my site, so if you stay rude and sarcastic, I'll just delete you. This will be your only warning. You get to decide if you want to participate in meaningful dialogue or not.

    I read the incident differently as I spelled out in the piece. I expect, given your hostility, you aren't actually interested in discussion, so I'll just leave it there.

    If you decide to apologize for your rudeness, I'll be happy to discuss further. Otherwise, this will be the last time I talk to you and no further posts from you will be published.

    Thanks for your comments.

  7. David Perry says:

    Tanker, you were warned. Find somewhere else to troll.

    I'm leaving your other comments up, so people can see the defensiveness which fairly calm discussions of appropriate police procedure can generate.

  8. bob vanbuskirk says:

    i just wanted to add that the police should train along side the training they now take ,for what would i do if i didn't have a gun right now .it seems there are many times people around the situation who are all dealing with whats going on and they have no gun.think of all the people who every day have knifes pulled on them and have to depend on there brains and think ok what am i going to do.what ever happened to coming up behind someone and grabbing them .do police now not use this because they would then be putting them self in the line of fire.its not a war zone that the police are in its are neighborhoods.

  9. bob vanbuskirk says:

    you missed the full length video i take it that was some 20 minutes long or so.the police man had a very long long time to get control of the situation and no one would be dead now .he didn't use his training period.and if he cant cuff a skinny 17 year old girl then he has no business being a police man.the police weren't attacked ,they did nothing but wait for the chance for her to do something so they could shoot her .how do you not cuff a person in who tells you i have a weapon on me and not pat them down especially when you have many chances and minutes to do so.your just baiting a person at this point.yes hindsight is 20-20 ,but the tape shows exactly what happened.was the first guy the janitor or was he a police man?

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