Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Lagrange Tragedy; Lessons learned?

     Recently, the Elyria Police department released the detailed report on the tragedy in Lagrange, that left one man dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, and a Lorain Sherriff deputy wounded by friendly fire. This event, which occurred on December 12, 2011, was the result of a phone call from the mother of the victim Travis Stidham, who contacted the department to check on the mental well-being of her son, who was in the midst of a possible mental health crisis.
     The report on this case, which has cooled in interest in over six months that have passed since the incident, shed light on what occurred that fateful night. It is a highly detailed illustration of what occurred from every conceivable viewpoint and did not affix blame or display any degree of bias. The Elyria Police should be commended for this investigation.  The errors on this case are numerous, and include all parties involved with this welfare check that went so tragically wrong.
     The tragedy began with the Mother of Stidham calling the Sherriff’s department to check on her son because he was acting in an irrational manner. She informed them that he had possibly shot up his television and killed two of his pets. With the knowledge that he possessed a firearm and that he suffered from mental health issues, the Sherriff deputies rightfully approached the situation with caution. To their credit, the deputies did speak with Travis’s father and now had ample evidence that he suffered from mental health issues.
     According to this report, the deputies set up a perimeter in the area of his home. They also witnessed him speaking with his father and exiting the house on several occasions to smoke. It must be pointed out that his father communicated to the officers that his son was “Off his rocker!” This was a direct reference to his diminishing mental state. At this time, everything though tense, was under control. Sadly, that was soon to change.
     While they encircled Stidham’s home, the deputies tried to make contact with him, but he did not answer the phone. It was at this time that a decision was made to light up the area of the home with the patrol car, and use a load speaker and declare for him to exit the house. These actions set in motion a series of events that not only lead to this man’s death, and the friendly fire wounding of a deputy; but allowed a paranoid, terrified, and psychotic individual with a weapon to be running through a neighborhood.
     At this time, a police helicopter was dispatched from Cleveland, to help locate Stidham. In time they did, and after a brief chase, Travis Stidham put his gun to his head and pulled the trigger.  
     There is no doubt that the need to bring in the helicopter to assist was the correct one, but perhaps it should have never gotten to that point.
     The error in judgment on this case was to try and force him out of his home. Speaking from firsthand experience, a person who is in psychosis suffers a vast deal of paranoia, and that appears to be what occurred here. The lights going on, and the loud speaker would have been construed by a person in crisis as an aggressive move, and in his delusional state, he would have felt threatened. At this time, the afflicted person would have become exceedingly defensive, and with flight being another symptom, running out of the house and firing the gun would have been a response to this action. It must be pointed out that in his home, Stidham was not a threat to anyone but himself.
     Time was on the side of the deputies and time brings about an ending to psychosis. In other words, the best way to manage and de-escalate a situation such as this would have been to back off and wait for the afflicted individual to calm down. Coincidently, that is what the Elyria Police did in a similar standoff about a month later.
     On January 23, of this year, the Elyria Police were called to a home where a man was suicidal and may have possessed a gun. Like Lagrange, they set up a perimeter. The difference being is that rather than force surrender, they waited for the situation to calm, and after three hours, the man excited the home, and he was transported to a local hospital for needed help.
     Crisis Intervention Team training (CIT), which is the holy grail of police training for dealing with people in mental health crisis, encourages de-escalation, and it was followed in the Elyria situation, but not in Lagrange. This situation was the result of an error in judgment, and hopefully people have learned from this. Additionally, the deputies should not bear the entire blame for the actual outcome.
     Coincidently, during a training program that I spoke at, I met and talked with one of the deputies on the scene that night. I found him to be a quality law enforcement officer and more importantly, a good person. I am certain all that were there that night were the same; they just made a grave error in judgment. However, I am equally certain their intentions were genuine, and they aspired to help Stidham.
     Lastly we affix responsibility on the person that clearly was at fault, and it was Stidham himself. There is little doubt that he was not at fault for developing this disease, Schizophrenia, though a significant segment of society seems to believe that. However, it is a cause, not an excuse! It was not his fault for developing the illness, but it became his obligation to work at getting better, staying in treatment, and accepting his affliction.
     It must be added that when the police did enter his home, they did find many pills still in the bottles that were for his condition, but none had been filled in the previous year. In essence, he was not taking the pills that would have prevented this tragedy from occurring.  Additionally, though no remains of his pets were ever discovered, it would have been easy to dispose of them. It also appears that he did indeed fire a bullet through his television set as it had a damaged screen.
     There was a startling comment from this report that bears mentioning. Six or seven months prior to this tragedy, a psychiatrist that was treating him told him “not go shooting anybody”. Once again, this doctor must have had some concern about his patient’s mental state, but with the current laws on the book, there would have been little that could have been done. Here, we have a warning sign of potential trouble, but, unless there was a direct threat, no police intervention was possible until something occurs.
     In the direct aftermath of this shootout, I wrote a column asking questions about the handling of this case. One colorful ignorant comment came from not surprisingly, an anonymous source. He or she said something to the effect, how can you expect the sheriff to train all his officers in dealing with this people like this? That person is somewhat correct; no one should expect proper police training. The citizens should DEMAND complete and updated training for all law enforcement personnel! Nothing less should be accepted!!!   
     The epilogue to the Lagrange tragedy is nothing for anyone to be boastful, nor forgetful. This case, and the ensuing aftermath exposed archaic and ineffective laws, questionable police training, and the inability to learn from mistakes and misjudgments. Sadly, it also proved once again the lack of understanding of the prevalence of mental illness, which gave people a right to consider people like Stidham expendable. This illustrated that, as a society, we are still in the “Neanderthal age of awareness” concerning these disorders. With that limited knowledge, it is understandable that we can still burn that metaphorical cross in the front yards of those afflicted, and have a large segment of the population find glee at mocking the behavior of those stigmatized. Then again, others will just shrug their shoulders and satisfy themselves that they did not witness anything obscene in cases such as this.
     The tragedy in Lagrange gives none of us cause for pride.