All too often, the victims of police shootings are people with mental illness. One American city has found a solution
February 3, 2012. Morning. The last seventy-two seconds of Michael Eligon’s life.
10:08:59 The dashboard camera of a Toronto police cruiser shows a uniformed officer running down a tree-lined residential street, away from the camera, as the police radio crackles. Other cops are visible farther down the block, sprinting up driveways and into backyards.
10:09:21 Off-camera, a voice shouts a series of urgent commands: “Drop it! Drop it. Drop the knife. Now!” Several officers bolt by the cruiser and out of the frame. Another voice, this one less strident, calls out, “Guys, back up! Back up!”
10:10:01 Seven officers reappear in the frame, walking-running down the block, away from the cruiser. Three face the dashboard camera with their guns drawn, aiming at something off-screen.
10:10:05 A man in a pale hospital gown comes into view, shuffling down the middle of the road. A few metres in front of him, several officers walk backwards, shouting.
10:10:07 One cop inadvertently backs into a pickup truck parked on the street. He ducks. Three high-pitched cracks ring out.
10:10:11 The man in the gown drops forward swiftly, heavily. His body somersaults, and he flops onto his back, motionless.
For a few moments, the officers look down at the body. Sirens and radio chatter are audible. Another cruiser pulls up.
“Suspect’s been shot,” says a muffled voice.
“Ten-four,” replies the dispatcher.
About ten metres away, Doug Pritchard, a resident out for a jog, watches the scene. “It’s a cold winter day,” he recalls later. “The guy is standing there in a hospital gown, with bare legs. My first thought: this guy is in a mental health crisis.”
As Eligon lies dying on the pavement, the officers kick a pair of scissors from his hands. One walks over to Pritchard and tells him to move on. Only when he reaches his house does he realize that no one has taken a statement from him. Pritchard scribbles some notes on a piece of paper and makes two calls: one to the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), the other to a TV news station.
On February 12, 2014, almost exactly two years later, a coroner’s jury took more or less the same view that Pritchard had. At the so-called JKE inquest into the police shootings of Reyal Jardine-Douglas, Sylvia Klinbingaitis, and Michael Eligon, it concluded that the twenty-nine-year-old father, who suffered from a debilitating psychological condition, was in the throes of an emotional crisis, not a murderous rampage.
The data is sporadic, but experts believe deaths like Eligon’s account for a substantial proportion of police shootings. After reviewing a dozen incidents over the past decade, police reporter Bill Dunphy, of the Hamilton Spectator, found that seven of them involved individuals undergoing an emotional or mental crisis.1 In Greater Vancouver, a recent study found that the police killed fifteen people between 1980 and 1995; five of them had “documented histories of mental illness,” and eight were suicidal. In the United States, an investigation last year by Maine’s Portland Press Herald concluded that as many as half of the 375 to 500 individuals killed each year by police officers had some type of mental illness.
In Toronto, public concern about police shootings of mentally ill people stretch back to 1988, when an officer shot and killed Lester Donaldson near his house during an altercation; Donaldson experienced delusions and had a history of violent outbursts. Since then, the frequency of such episodes appears to have accelerated. The SIU investigated two firearms deaths in 2008–09, seven in 2010, and nine in 2011. Toronto—whose $1-billion-a-year police service is the highest paid in the country—accounts for the lion’s share of these tragedies in Canada, but similar incidents have occurred in Halifax, Hamilton, and Montreal. Nor is this a uniquely Canadian problem, as Louise Bradley, president and JKE of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, points out: “The reality is, interactions between police and the mentally ill aren’t going away.”
While the SIU laid no charges against Constable Louie Cerqua, the officer who shot Eligon, the jury did make seventy-four sweeping recommendations, calling for major changes to training, emergency response tactics, and “use-of-force” guidelines in cases involving “emotionally disturbed persons.” Ontario Ombudsman André Marin and former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iaccobucci are also conducting their own assessments. Meanwhile, another Toronto officer faces second-degree murder charges for the shooting of Sammy Yatim, the eighteen-year-old Syrian immigrant who brandished a knife on a streetcar last summer. The scrutiny, in short, is intensive.
Michael Eligon lived alone in a small apartment in Toronto’s west end. He had a young son from an earlier relationship, and he suffered from a chronic psychological condition known as body dysmorphic disorder, which causes people to fixate on their appearance. He believed that acne scars on his face were disfiguring and pungent. This caused him to become intensely self-conscious, isolated, and depressed, and he had trouble holding a job.
For six years, he had been seeing a social worker at a west end hospital; they spoke weekly. In January 2012, however, she noticed that his condition had deteriorated. He had lost his apartment and moved to a safe house. She arranged a prescription for an anti-anxiety medication, but it didn’t help. On February 1, she contacted the police, asking them to take him to a psychiatric facility.
Eligon refused to go, so the police took him into custody, as they are legally entitled to do if they suspect that a person may hurt himself or others. However, instead of driving him to the medical centre where the social worker was based, they delivered him, in handcuffs, to Toronto East General Hospital. There, an emergency room physician gave orders to hold him for observation and prescribed anti-psychotic drugs, and he spent a sleepless night in the ER. The next morning, a psychiatrist told him he would have to stay for another day; but the hospital still had no beds, so he found himself parked in a cubicle, without a bed or a door for yet another night. The hospital did not assign anyone to watch him, because he posed no threat to the staff or other patients.
When the day shift arrived, Eligon asked a nurse if he could speak to a lawyer. She told him no. About an hour later, after two days of idling in the ER, he walked out, wearing a gown, socks, underwear, and a toque.
Many young men and women join the police force because they want to catch criminals; few expect that they will end up managing so much psychological distress. Anywhere from 7 to 40 percent of individuals who come in contact with the police in Canada and the US are emotionally disturbed. Addiction and homelessness add further complications. Officials with the Vancouver Police Department say 20 to 30 percent of 911 calls involve people experiencing an emotional crisis, and those numbers are rising. “We can’t arrest our way out of this problem,” says VPD chief Jim Chu.
In Toronto, the police respond to 19,000 calls each year involving someone who is emotionally disturbed, and they make 8,600 apprehensions under the Mental Health Act (2011 figures). The number represents less than half of 1 percent of all police contacts with the public, which include everything from traffic stops to arrests. That statistic is substantially lower than estimates in other jurisdictions, and it raises questions about whether TPS personnel—from 911 dispatchers to beat cops—are able to recognize when they are dealing with someone with mental illness.
The TPS touts the fact that a tiny number of police contacts with individuals lead to injuries or deaths: sixty-four incidents in 2011. That figure indicates that the city’s police force is capable of dealing with mental illness, says Deputy Chief Mike Federico: “It’s not as if we’re lucky 99.9 percent of the time.”
Still, the latest TPS professional services report reveals that the number of use-of-force incidents, including the firing of tasers, remains well above 1,000 per year. The figures are significant, mental health experts say, because the police are more likely to use force to subdue a person in a crisis. In 2012, the report adds, the SIU investigated ten deaths involving TPS officers. All were exonerated.
After Donaldson’s death, senior police officials lobbied unsuccessfully to avoid an inquest. Coroner’s inquests generate media attention and a bevy of proposed changes that run the gamut from increased taser use to better training. For those who have watched the inquests come and go, there is a depressing sameness to the dynamic. The law requires the SIU to investigate, which rarely results in charges.
Every so often, a shocking incident galvanizes the public and leads to systemic change. This is what happened in Memphis, Tennessee, almost thirty years ago, when a white cop shot an African American man who threatened to kill himself and stab his family.
During the ensuing outcry, a group representing families of individuals with mental illness pointed out that many of them were terrified to call 911 when a relative was in crisis, for fear that he or she would be thrown in jail or shot. Consequently, their conditions often went untreated. Street cops, in turn, did not know what to do with people in delusional or psychotic states, other than arrest them. And they resented waiting for hours in an ER for a psychiatrist to sign the admission forms.
Memphis mayor Richard Hackett summoned Police Director James E. Ivy, family advocates, and local mental health officials, and told them to find solutions. One of the director’s best officers, Sam Cochran, launched a new training program and, with ER psychologist Randolph Dupont, developed a curriculum to reorient the outlook of cops, which had been shaped by the stark realities of policing a racially polarized city.
Memphis, one-quarter of Toronto’s size but with a homicide rate nine times higher, has developed a progressive approach to de-escalate high-tension confrontations, improve police attitudes toward those suffering from mental illness, and divert them from the criminal justice system. The Memphis Crisis Intervention Team model centres on dispatching specially trained beat cops to emergency calls as quickly as possible, and giving them the authority to take charge of the scene. That approach triggered a revolution in policing that has now been emulated in 2,700 jurisdictions across the US, including large urban centres such as Chicago and Los Angeles. A handful of Canadian cities, among them Hamilton and Vancouver, have also adopted the CIT model. While the TPS has not, senior officials claim that all of its 5,500 uniformed officers receive some training in how to handle mental illness, which makes the recent proliferation of shootings that much more perplexing.
The Memphis CIT model—which includes an intensive forty-hour course for selected officers, and depends on strong institutional partnerships among law enforcement agencies, mental health institutions, and patient advocates—is not fail safe, as officials in Memphis freely admit. However, studies have shown that officers who use the CIT approach tend to be safer, more compassionate toward disturbed people, and more likely to seek ways to get them help. The jury is still out on whether this actually reduces the incidence of lethal shootings, largely because it is exceedingly difficult to measure confrontations that don’t happen.
“There’s no perfect system,” states Major Sam Cochran (retired), the flinty Memphis PD supervisor from Mississippi who pioneered this type of policing in the late 1980s. “I’m not looking for absolutes,” he told me. “I’m looking for better.”
Michael Eligon walked out of the Toronto East General ER around 9 a.m. No one asked him any questions or urged him to stay. His first stop was a convenience store just south of the hospital. He darted in, grabbed two pairs of scissors, and started to leave when the owner confronted him, demanding that he pay. They began to argue, and the owner grabbed a long awning pole. The two men struggled, and the scissors cut the storekeeper’s hand. Eligon dropped his cellphone and a rosary and fled. The other man called 911, reporting that he had been stabbed; at the inquest, he revealed that he did not seek medical attention for the relatively minor wound until the end of the day. He also said he did not believe Eligon had intended to hurt him.
A few moments later, Eligon encountered a woman getting into her car. He approached her and demanded the keys. The woman, who later told the inquest that she did not recall seeing the scissors, refused. “No fucking way!” she shouted. She kicked Eligon, and he tumbled into the front seat. He climbed out and ran away, turning off Coxwell Avenue, a busy thoroughfare, and headed into a nearby neighbourhood.
When he reached Milverton Avenue, he ducked into several backyards and tried to force open the back doors of a few houses. Some residents yelled at him to leave; others called 911. By about 10 a.m., emergency dispatch operators had received enough calls to piece together a storyline: a man appeared to have fled the hospital and was carrying some kind of weapon; he had attempted a carjacking and was now trying to break in to homes. Several cruisers sped to the scene. One blocked off one end of Milverton, and others pulled onto the street. The canine unit, which is sometimes dispatched to control people who do not respond to commands, was also en route.
Ten officers, all constables of the same rank, began a frantic search for Eligon. When he finally emerged from the backyards and began shuffling down Milverton, confusion prevailed. Some shouted at him to drop what they believed was a knife, and others urged their colleagues to shoot. A few others wanted to give him space.
He was walking robotically, with his hands at his sides. When Louie Cerqua, a twenty-six-year-old constable in uniform for just nine months, squeezed off three rounds, only one struck Eligon. The others hit a garbage can and the porch window of a house across the street; there were bystanders on the sidewalk and residents in their homes. Cerqua later testified that he fired in self-defence, claiming that he heard Eligon utter a threat. From the time that the police arrived on Milverton to the moment when Eligon hit the pavement, only a few minutes elapsed.
Peter Rosenthal, the lawyer who represented Eligon’s family at the inquest, points out that none of the cops on the street that day tried other ways to communicate with the man when he ignored their commands: “No one said, ‘Michael, we’d like to talk to you.’ ”
Under the law, officers are always entitled to use lethal force to protect public safety or themselves. When someone has a firearm, the calculus seems straightforward enough, but the protocol also covers “edged” objects; indeed, the police are trained that if a person carrying an edged weapon—anything from a butcher knife to a butter knife—is within twenty-one feet of them (no one uses metric), he or she poses a mortal threat.
“Use of force is only justified based on the behaviour of the individual,” says Mike Federico, who testified at the JKE inquest. Rosenthal interprets this statement to mean, “The guy has a knife, and we’re not going to think about whether he’s emotionally disturbed.” The testimony reminded the lawyer of the 2007 inquest into the death of O’Brien Christopher-Reid, a young man who suffered from delusions and one day found himself wandering in a Toronto park, shirtless, with a kitchen knife tucked in his pants. When three constables cornered him and ordered him to put down the weapon, he replied, “What for? ” The officers kept yelling commands and eventually opened fire.
On the witness stand, one of the officers explained his modus operandi: “First I get control, then I answer questions.” Says Rosenthal, who represented Christopher-Reid’s family, “In my view, it’s astonishing that they wouldn’t answer the question first. It seems to me, in that case, that if they just answered his question it might be a whole different ball game. He had no criminal history. He was just a guy in a state.”
Jennifer Chambers, who heads a patients’ group called the Empowerment Council at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, has appeared as a witness during several inquests. When testifying, she goes out of her way to acknowledge the compassion of certain police officers, some of whom have expressed gratitude for her measured stance. Last fall’s triple inquest was different. The atmosphere, she recalls, was “hostile” and litigious: “I’ve never been challenged so much. There seemed to be a change in tone.”
The timing of the JKE inquest was significant; it began just months after the shooting of Sammy Yatim. Late on the night of July 27, 2013, the teenager started flashing passengers on a Toronto streetcar. He was yelling and carrying a knife. The driver stopped the vehicle and opened the rear doors, allowing the other passengers to flee. When the police arrived, Yatim was pacing inside. Several officers gathered at the front door and began yelling commands. He shouted back obscenities. Instead of simply locking him inside until he calmed down, Constable James Forcillo, the ranking officer, opened fire, shooting Yatim three times before pausing and then taking six more shots, all at close range. Another officer tasered Yatim’s lifeless body.
The difference is that a bystander caught the shocking episode on his cellphone camera; within days, thousands were marching in protest and demanding that TPS chief Bill Blair account for his officers’ conduct. Forcillo was charged with second-degree murder and has since been assigned to desk duty. Public outrage over Yatim’s pointless death remains raw and visceral. It could be Toronto’s Memphis moment, a turning point for the city.
Late on a wet April evening, Officer Nigel Payne, twenty-seven, a chatty Memphis cop, surveys the bedroom of a garbage-strewn apartment in a rough section of town. Three other officers have just handcuffed a skinny twenty-two-year-old wearing stained sweatpants and a loose T-shirt. The distraught man is weeping and agitated. He insists between sobs that his mother’s boyfriend, who is watching a huge TV in a dim room nearby, attacked him. However, the cops had seen the youth beating up the older man when they responded to a domestic violence call.
Payne, a designated Crisis Intervention Team officer, arrives moments after his colleagues, dispatched specifically to settle people who may be psychologically disturbed. As the other cops retreat into the hall, he speaks softly to the young man, trying to calm him down and draw him out. He places a hand on the kid’s shoulder and inquires if he has been hurt. Then he asks him if he has any history of mental illness. Still crying, the youth mutters something about ADHD.
Ducking out to the stairwell, Payne pulls out his phone and calls the man’s mother. After three tries, he gets her on the line.
The voice on the other end is flat, resigned. “Is he going to jail? ”
“I don’t know, ma’am. I’m the CIT officer. He’s crying uncontrollably.”
Men embroiled in such confrontations typically do not break down. Payne asks if her son has ever been diagnosed with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
He was seen at the local mental health hospital, she says.
“Did they get him a prescription? ”
“This child needs some help,” the mother replies. “Do you hear me? ”
Moments later, she is climbing up the stairwell, still wearing a red satin pyjama top. She lives elsewhere and works at a local library.
Payne continues fishing for insights. “Do you know if he’s taken drugs? ”
The woman mouths her answer. “Cocaine.”
A half-hour later, Payne has the kid in the back seat of his cruiser. “So, what kind of music do you listen to? ” he asks. There are muffled sobs. “You with me back there? Talk to me, man. If you black out on me, I don’t know how much I can help.”
The officer cues up Lil Wayne. As we drive through the empty streets toward the county lock-up, he tells me that he puts all sorts of music on his smart phone so he can play whatever his prisoners want to hear. He figures it will soothe them, and he says some even sing along. By the time we reach the facility, where the man will be charged with assault, he has stopped crying and writhing.
Payne is one of 275 Memphis patrol officers—one-fifth of the force—with a CIT designation. They wear a CIT emblem pin on their uniforms, to tell people (especially those with mental illnesses) that they have the expertise. While all of them volunteered, CIT officers are chosen for their judgment and communication skills, as well as a demonstrated empathy for those living with mental illness. The work is not for everyone.
CIT training involves complex role-playing scenarios; detailed information about psychological conditions, medications, and their side effects; and practice in verbal de-escalation techniques. The trainees meet with people who have emotional disorders. They learn that hollering traditional “compliance” commands—“Police! Drop the weapon!”—at someone who is delusional or hearing voices will almost certainly make the situation worse.
During annual in-service sessions, TPS officers receive six hours of instruction in how to handle emotionally disturbed individuals; this includes lectures on de-escalation, and a thirty-minute video featuring people discussing their experiences with mental illness. The Ontario Police College uses a ten-year-old manual on how front line officers should respond to such calls. This past spring, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and the Mental Health Commission of Canada released a report outlining more current methods.
The Memphis model champions a greater focus on empathy. Sam Cochran, who now trains CIT officers through a University of Memphis program, objects to the term “stigma,” so often deployed to politely describe the attitudes that confront people with mental illness: “The word is ‘prejudice.’ ” He explains one of the exercises. Afacilitator asks the class to give a list of pejorative terms for people with mental illness. After some initial discomfort, the students offer suggestions: “nuts,” “psycho,” “two sandwiches short of a picnic.” The facilitator writes all of them on the blackboard, praises the class, then asks them to build a second list, of adjectives for people with cancer. “Eventually,” Cochran says, “they come up with a few words, usually ‘brave,’ ‘courageous,’ ‘sick.’ ” When the officers see the two lists side by side, he observes, “it says a lot.”
He and Randolph Dupont want CIT trainees to think carefully about what they see and hear when they respond. People with severe schizophrenia may grab a weapon to protect themselves from unseen demons, not to attack the police. The program also presents a heretical view of the twenty-one-foot rule. The thrust of conventional training, Cochran says, is this: “If the person has a knife within twenty-one feet of where you are and you don’t have a weapon out, you will die.” He recalls his own cadet training, which included a staged video of a cop getting his throat cut. The experience, he says, was “traumatizing,” perhaps intentionally so.
While he agrees that personal safety remains paramount, CIT officers are taught to manage tense situations with tactics that go far beyond shouting and shooting. They are trained to recognize symptoms and to ignore venting. Payne says he always looks for conversational openings: is the person wearing a sports jersey, or the insignia of a military veteran?
If someone is responding to voices, the CIT officer may say that he or she doesn’t hear them but believes they are part of the person’s reality. “My first approach is to acknowledge that they’re going through a stressful situation, mentally,” says Lieutenant Jeff Dwyer, a CIT supervisor with a handlebar moustache, who works in the Memphis suburb of Collierville. “[I say], ‘My goal is to work through this with you.’ ”
Graduates of the program serve as first responders, racing to 911 calls. Most significantly, CIT officers have the formal authority to take charge of the scene, regardless of other officers’ rank or seniority. In Memphis, they are also the only ones allowed to use tasers, or “impact weapons,” menacing contraptions that look like grenade launchers and fire blunt, pill bottle–sized “batons” made of plastic or gel. These plugs will knock over a person brandishing a gun or a knife. They inflict a nasty bruise, as if from a hard slapshot, but that’s the extent of the damage.
Cochran and Dupont stress that the CIT model is as much about the system as it is about training. Their 911 dispatchers are specifically trained to recognize an emotional crisis. Health care institutions, such as regional trauma centres, are set up to make it easy and straightforward for the police to divert emotionally troubled people away from the criminal justice system, where they will not receive treatment. This is a critical detail. If an officer anticipates waiting around in the ER for fourteen hours with someone in the throes of a meltdown who has yet to be admitted, the cop may choose to take the person to the local jail instead.
Dupont highlights the endorsements, including from Amnesty International and the US Department of Justice. Studies from the late 1990s show how CIT officers arrive at crisis situations considerably faster than mobile crisis intervention teams, which consist of a police officer and a mental health worker such as psychiatric nurse.
Many Canadian jurisdictions, including Toronto, rely on the mobile crisis intervention team, or “co-responder,” approach, which originated in Los Angeles in 1993 (LA also has CIT officers, whereas Toronto does not). Mike Federico says the officers assigned to TPS mobile crisis units have specialized training and travel with a mental health worker. However, these teams only work ten-hour shifts (typically late morning to just before midnight), but they don’t respond to 911 calls. In the Eligon shooting, says Rosenthal, the dispatchers did not summon a mobile crisis team to the scene. Instead, they called the canine unit.
Amy Watson, a University of Illinois associate professor of social work, has been studying a Chicago Police Department CIT pilot project called for by former mayor Richard Daley in the wake of two 2004 police shootings of mentally ill individuals, one armed with a butter knife, the other with a fork. Over a month in 2008, Watson and her graduate students tracked officers in four precincts, some with CIT training, others without. They conducted ride-alongs, interviews, and statistical analyses. The conclusion: cops with a CIT designation were more likely than those without the training to connect troubled individuals to mental health services; they also tended to avoid using force. She says the CPD has pushed local mental health care providers to work more closely with front line officers who may have taken someone in a crisis state into custody.
In April 2014, a study of 586 Georgia police officers concluded that the CIT officers held more enlightened and informed attitudes toward people with mental illness than untrained cops did. While use-of-force rates do not differ between those with or without CIT training, cops who had the expertise were more likely to try verbal de-escalation first. The report observes that “CIT training appears to increase the likelihood of referral or transport to mental health services and decrease the likelihood of arrest during encounters with individuals thought to have a behavioral disorder.”
A few Canadian cities, including Halifax and Vancouver, combine the CIT and mobile team approaches. Hamilton has around 270 front line CIT officers, about one-third of its uniformed force, and the program has been in place since 2005. Last fall, however, the HPS added a mobile unit with a psychiatric nurse and a police officer. Ken Garland, a veteran Hamilton cop who serves on such a team for an agency called COAST (Crisis Outreach and Support Team), believes working alongside civilians has given him a fresh perspective on policing. Between calls, he listens to how COAST’s crisis line operators engage with distressed people. “I want to be able to talk to people like that,” he says.
The decision to establish a rapid-response mobile crisis team in Hamilton came hard on the heels of the June 20132 shooting death of Steve Mesic, a forty-five-year-old man suffering from severe anxiety. He had admitted himself to a local psychiatric hospital, but then signed himself out and was later seen darting in and out of traffic when the police were summoned. They found him in a fenced backyard (his own), swinging a spade, and fired on him when he refused to comply. None of Hamilton’s CIT officers were at the scene. Reporter Bill Dunphy has sought to obtain HPS’s SIU reports into fatal shootings, but he has been stonewalled.3
Just before Christmas, a Hamilton sergeant committed suicide at a station house. The tragedy shook the city. Shortly before I visited Memphis, an officer there also killed himself. The Memphis Police Department, like most law enforcement agencies, is tight lipped about such incidents.
These suicides, rooted in some toxic brew of personal, neurological, and professional trauma, make policing that much more dispiriting for survivors. They also underscore the elephant in this room, which is the question of how cops’ demons come into play when they face a high-stress situation, as with Michael Eligon. What are their emotional triggers? What was going through the minds of Louie Cerqua and James Forcillo when they found themselves in charged confrontations? And how will they function in the future?
These seem like germane questions. Post-traumatic stress disorder is not uncommon among police officers. I know one traffic cop who avoids looking a dying person in the eye at an accident scene, for fear of being permanently haunted. Imagine taking that to work every day.
The JKE inquest report suggests that officers be equipped with strategies for coping with shock and the aftermath of adrenalin rushes from high-stress encounters. At a Toronto conference this past spring about policing and mental illness, a few sessions tiptoed around the subject, casting it ever so delicately as a workplace “stigma” issue.
Lieutenant Jeff Dwyer, the suburban Memphis CIT supervisor, told me that he openly talks about his own stresses with junior officers, to foster a culture in which such problems don’t stay bottled up. He has even had occasion to use verbal de-escalation techniques to settle agitated colleagues. A warning sign, he adds, is a record that shows an increase in use-of-force incidents. “Police officers are like people in the military,” he says. “They’re the last ones to admit a problem.”
One morning while I was in Memphis, I showed the video of the Michael Eligon shooting to Cochran and Dupont. We were having a greasy breakfast in a diner with wooden tables and a large American flag hanging behind the cash register. When I told them that the whole encounter had taken less than two minutes and involved plenty of shouting but no talking, Dupont threw up his hands.
“If you have two or three people hollering, and if the person feels surrounded, they may feel threatened,” added Cochran.
The jury in the JKE inquest reached the same conclusion. The recommendations read like a walk through the Memphis PD’s CIT policy manual: officers should get more information about mental health problems, and have opportunities to interact with people living with these conditions. It urged far more emphasis on verbal de-escalation, even when an emotionally distressed person is carrying an edged weapon. As in Memphis, the jury said that patrol officers with specialized training should take the lead during emergency situations.
While the TPS claims that its mobile crisis units are “a development” of the Memphis model, the reality is that the police service has no contingent of first responders with the additional training and support that Memphis CIT cops like Nigel Payne can draw on. (The TPS does have special Emergency Task Force, or ETF, teams with extensive training, who respond to incidents such as hostage takings.) That dearth of expertise among front line cops seems like a glaring oversight, and it raises tough questions about the organization’s culture.
The jury also recommended that first responders need not adhere slavishly to the twenty-one-foot rule when dealing with a disturbed person carrying an edged weapon; if lead officers are being covered by their partners, they must seek to de-escalate. And if the person disregards standard tactical commands, as in Eligon’s case, first responders should be trained “to stop those shouting commands and attempt different defusing communications strategies.”
These methods cannot guarantee that tragedies will not occur, as Hamilton’s experience suggests. Both Cochran and Dupont say the system only works if there are advocates to champion a human approach, and to ensure that each new cohort of senior police officials buys in to these methods. Still, the presence of a well-supported CIT program does seem to increase the chances of a peaceful outcome.
A few months after the inquest wrapped up, Doug Pritchard showed me around the scene of the Eligon shooting. It was a cool spring morning, and the pickup truck that the cop had backed into was parked, as usual, on the side of the street. “Michael was in the middle of the road,” he said, pointing down the block, “and walking this way.”
Pritchard retraced Eligon’s movements and showed me the pane of glass, still broken, where one of the stray bullets had struck. He recounted the vigil that was held a few days after Eligon’s death. Then he found himself casting back to an especially troubling exchange during the inquest. One cop testified that everything the officers did that morning complied with standard TPS practice. “ ‘It’s textbook, and I wouldn’t change a thing,’ ” Pritchard recalled her saying.
Not all of the first responders that morning had textbook reactions to the situation confronting them. Only Cerqua fired his weapon, and at least one other cop called on his colleagues to give Eligon space. Why? He likely had enough life experience to think beyond the twenty-one-foot rule, and to recognize what was in front of him: a man in crisis, rather than a police killer brandishing a potentially fatal weapon.
“Guys, back up! Back up!” he called. The question is, what will it take for that calmer voice to prevail?