Monday, December 19, 2011
Death in Lagrange
Last week, a tragic shootout occurred in this small, rural township, which left a man dead, and a sheriff deputy wounded. In its wake, there appears to be many unanswered questions; specifically, how could an officer checking on the welfare of a man in the midst of a possible mental health crisis, have it end so tragically? Hopefully, the answers will be forthcoming soon!
Though I am first, and foremost an advocate for those suffering with mental illness, I also have strong ties to the police; who I refer to as the new and best mental health workers! I am the first one to defend them after they have violent interactions with individuals in crisis, and rarely do I find fault with their work. However, I am reserving judgment in this case until more facts become available. The reasons for these reservations will soon become clear.
This incident began when the mother of the person in question, Travis Stidham, called the Lorain County Sheriff’s department, and asked them to check in on him because he was acting strangely. Through newspaper accounts, it appears that the officers did attempt to make contact with this man, but he did not respond. They did see him through his windows moving around in his home, but apparently, he had barricaded himself in that house.
It appears, at this time that the deputies set up a perimeter around his house, and tried once again, to make contact with him. At some point, Stidham did exit the house, and the officers at the scene put a spotlight on him. According to an eyewitness, he then began shooting at the deputies who returned fire. At first report, it was an “officer down” situation, and he was pursued as if he did, in fact, shoot the officer. A short time later, with a police helicopter hovering overhead, the individual committed suicide.
Over the course of the next several days, it was determined that the officer wounded, Deputy Charles Crausaz, was actually wounded by friendly fire, not by Stidham. That does NOT diminish the situation in any way. In the course of a gunfight, things like that happen, and neither officer should be overly scrutinized for it. However, more precautions and training may be called for to avoid a repeat. The officer, who fired the errant shot, should again, not face undue criticism as this was a tense situation, and it occurred at night. We should all be grateful that the officer will recover.
It is here that the situation becomes murky. Tom Skoch, the editor of the Lorain Morning Journal said it best in his “Our View” column this past Sunday. He said, “The facts known publicly so far do not indicate that Stidham was presenting a threat to anyone outside of his home.”
The law on when an individual can be committed for treatment is clear, and it says that the individual had to be sure danger to themselves or others. It is evident that he was acting strange, but that did not make him a threat. Yes, he also owned a gun, but again, that is not illegal. Though there is no conclusive proof that this man had psychiatric issues, there is ample evidence to suggest it was part of the equation. Namely, his mother telling the dispatcher that her son was off his medication, a claim, echoed by his neighbors.
A large question looms, and that is, were the first officers on the scene to make contact trained in Crisis intervention (CIT)?
This program, developed in Memphis, Tennessee in the late 1980’s, has been designed to train officers to deal with people in crisis; a plausible scenario with Travis Stidham. It was implemented to avoid violent confrontations, and the empirical evidence of its success is overwhelming. I have been involved with this training program for over six years now, and it has gained widespread acceptance, though it was not available in Lorain County till about 2001.
The methodology in CIT is to make people aware that a mental health crisis is not a criminal offence; it is a “Medical Emergency”, and should be treated as such. In essence, during most CIT calls, the officers should also have an ambulance standing by, in the event that they realize the need to have the patient admitted for treatment.
As of this time, it does not appear that this protocol was followed. It is as if this was being treated as a criminal case, almost right from the very beginning. With this, they may have lost the ability to de-escalate a situation before it became a firefight. The sheriff’s department may have a compelling reason for that, and hopefully, they will provide a credible explanation.
Keeping in line with this, could the spotlight being shined on Stidhamn have been misconstrued by him as some form of aggression? If he was delusional, could he have interpreted this to be a gunshot? This question will be difficult to answer, even though the police has an “eyewitness” to the event; that type of evidence is routinely dismissed by investigators as somewhat unreliable.
I must concede that, if in fact, Stidham, did have a mental health issue; he has to share some responsibility. As one who has dealt with mental illness it is not the fault of the person that they got sick, but, it becomes their responsibility to get treatment, stay in it, and get better!
The Elyria police are going to be the ones that are handling the investigation, and I do have a high level of confidence in them. That was not always the case, but they have made many positive changes in their department, so now I believe we will see an accurate accounting as to what happened. Hopefully, the sheriff’s department will take any criticism as constructive, and make the necessary changes. Most importantly, in the future, what steps can the department do to avoid a repeat of this type of tragedy?
I must add one more thing. I find it odd that the sheriff’s department is being lauded for being upfront about this friendly fire incident, and the resulting tragedy. I will not join the chorus of accolades for those declarations. Why praise someone for simply telling the truth?
I look forward to questions and comments and will respond to all.