Distressed? Need Help? Better Hope the Police Don’t Show

Posted on September 17, 2013


You know,  I have friends who are police officers; I respect the work they do; I recognize that it is tough, dangerous, and gritty.  But I can’t ignore cases like these.

Early Saturday morning, after suffering a serious car wreck in the wee hours of the morning near Charlotte, NC, a young, college-educated man – Jonathan Ferrell, a former FAMU football player – walked to the nearest house, and knocked on the door.  The homeowner, thinking it was her husband, opened the door; seeing the stranger, she closed the door in his face, punched her alarm, and called 911.  Police responded to the call as a “breaking and entering” case.  When they arrived around 2:30 AM, the man reportedly “ran” or “charged” toward them.  The police fired a Taser, which missed, so Ferrell was shot and killed.  It was only in retrospect – after finding his wrecked car nearby – that they allowed that, well, perhaps he might have been running toward them for help.  In a very rare turn of events, the officer who fired the shots has been swiftly charged with voluntary manslaughter.

Ferrell is a victim of a few things that we need to fix.

He’s very likely a victim of racial stereotyping; a black man pounding on your door past midnight – well, what do most people assume?  The homeowner’s call to 911 and her activation of her alarm system were treated as Breaking and Entering, when in fact all Ferrell did was pound on the door.  Maybe the homeowner would have reacted the same way to any stranger at her door at that hour; we can’t know.  Some people are just… afraid.  So I’m not going to hold her 911 call against her too much.

However, I do hold the police to a higher standard. They do this for a living.  They respond to the whole gamut of sad, dangerous, and just plain weird situations.  I recognize the risks they take, but you know, we call the police for help as well as to report crimes.  A little compassion is called for; a little humanity.  But no, “heavy-handed,” “escalation,” and “lethal force” increasingly seem to be the few remaining variations available in police responses to an infinite array of possible situations.

Consider these cases:

In August, John Terzani’s wife called 911 and said she feared her husband might be suicidal.  They had argued, and he had headed into the woods with a pistol.  The police responded with a heavily armed unit, night vision goggles and a helicopter.  After a six-hour standoff which included police trying to Taser him three times, the police shot and killed him with a .223 round (read:  an AR-15 or equivalent weapon) when he allegedly raised his pistol.  The family – and medical experts – believe that Terzani did not intend to go through with suicide, because he “struggled with it for close to eight hours,” which is “consistent with someone who is unclear or unsure.”  Throughout the standoff, Terzani’s family was denied contact with him.

Back in June, Elsa Cruz called 911 because she feared that her husband, Samuel, might be off his medicine for schizophrenia and in need of help.  The police arrived and banged loudly on the door, alarming Mr. Cruz.  They then forced the door open and shot Mr. Cruz, killing him.  Mrs. Cruz was present the entire time but her repeated requests to talk to her husband in order to de-escalate the situation were denied.

Or recall the case of Kenneth Chamberlain, killed by police in White Plains, NY in 2011 because he declined assistance when his medical alert pendant mistakenly went off.  He refused to open his door, but the police were hell-bent on getting into his apartment to make good and sure he was all right.  Well, he was all right, until they scared the crap out of him, then got in and bean-bagged, Tasered and shot him.  Then he was dead.  As I have written previously, I just don’t even know how to wrap my head around breaking down a man’s door and killing him because he had a faulty medical alert device and refused help.  The White Plains Public Safety Commissioner called it “a warranted use of deadly force.”  Mr. Chamberlain’s niece was present in the hallway with first responders, but her request to talk to her uncle were denied.

Well, this is all pretty bad.  Basically, the emerging conclusion is that if you need help, you had better hope that the police don’t show up, because their brand of “help” – especially in New York State, where three of these cases occurred – consists of isolating distressed people from their families, scaring the tar out of them with all kinds of loud noises and shows of force, escalating the situation and then killing them when they freak out.

Every one of these cases involved a distressed person in need of help:  the rattled car accident victim, the potential suicide, the frightened mental patient, the elderly man with the accidental medical alert for his heart condition.  All of them ended up shot to death by the police, who should have offered their help instead.

Every one of these cases could have turned out very differently if we would just do one thing:  talk to each other like actual human beings.

How differently might things have gone?

Homeowner, to Mr. Ferrell:   “Wait right there, I’m calling 911, they are on the way.”  If this was a real robbery, the robber would have fled at that point.  A person needing help would have waited.  And perhaps Mr. Ferrell would not have been labeled as a possible “Breaking and Entering” case right up front.  Maybe he would even have had a chance to calm down, sitting on the front steps, and to tell the homeowner (through the door) that he had been in an accident.  She doesn’t have to believe him or to risk her safety; but she also doesn’t have to make assumptions that bring the police blazing in… and turn out to be wrong.

Police officer, to Mr. Terzani:  “Frankly, I’m scared of your gun.  Too many of my friends have been on the wrong end of one.  Put it down, show me your hands, and come on over here and talk to your wife.  She’s worried about you.”

Police officer, to Mr. Cruz:  “Listen, we need to get a doctor to check you out.  Your wife is worried about you.  She’s right here, talk to her.”

Police officer, to Mr. Chamberlain:  “We’re here because of your medical alert.  We don’t want to leave until we’re sure you’re okay.  Can we just send in a paramedic with your niece to get your vital signs?”

Now, I’m not saying that these are magic words that would have resolved everything in a shower of hearts and flowers; but they are very human words, ones that recognize the personhood of the subjects and express the personhood of the responders.  They are a start to a dialogue rather than an escalation.  It’s about a person talking to another person.  Not about a cop taking down a perp.  People are more than just “cases.”  We should expect law enforcement to keep sight of that.