Shooting of mentally ill man raises policing questions
JUSTIN JUOZAPAVICIUS Associated Press
4:26 PM, Jun 17, 2017
TULSA, Okla. (AP) -- Joshua Barre's mental health was spiraling out of control before he grabbed two butcher knives and went outside. The 29-year-old black man with bipolar disorder had been off his medication and holed up at home, cycling through depression, anxiety and paranoia.
His mother pleaded for an intervention from Oklahoma's first line of defense for mental health: law enforcement. And Tulsa County deputies responded: Officers with the agency's mental crisis unit, trained in de-escalation techniques, went to Barre's house three times in the days before their final encounter on June 9.
This time, two deputies watched Barre walk down the street, barefoot and shirtless, clutching the pair of knives, but decided not to confront him.
Instead, they called for backup and followed him for nearly a mile, until he approached a store where they feared other people could have been in danger if he went in.
"Inexplicably, they corralled him to the convenience store, setting up a nightmare scenario," said Dan Smolen, the family's attorney.
A deputy tried to subdue Barre with a stun gun just outside the store, but it had no effect. Fearing for the customers' safety, the deputies and a Tulsa police officer who had arrived as backup opened fire, killing him as he tried to enter the store.
Barre's killing prompted an immediate outcry in Tulsa. Only three weeks earlier, a white police officer was acquitted of manslaughter in the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man last year. In 2015, a volunteer sheriff's deputy fatally shot an unarmed black man in a city street.
Beyond the dismally familiar questions about racial bias in policing, Barre's death shows how mental health issues challenge even veteran law enforcers who are trained in de-escalation techniques.
Responding appropriately to mental crises has been a priority for the Tulsa sheriff's office since 1991, agency spokesman Justin Green said.
Four deputies detailed to the mental crisis unit receive special training in de-escalation, suicide prevention and handling combative people. One of the deputies involved in Barre's death, William Ramsey, has been with the unit for nearly 20 years. They've made thousands of pickups in all that time. Until Friday, Green said, none of the pickups resulted in a death.
About one out of every four people killed in officer-involved shootings has a serious mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a Virginia-based nonprofit that has trained police in crisis intervention in roughly 2,700 communities since the late 1980s.
Deciding just when and how police should engage with the mentally ill is a risky give-and-take that's been hotly debated among experts for years. The real shame is that officers are the first responders in such situations, said Ron Honberg, a senior policy adviser at the alliance.
"We're asking police officers across the country to do the job ideally that trained mental health professionals should be doing," Honberg told The Associated Press.
Barre's family, their lawyer and others question why authorities didn't try less-lethal force far sooner, when officers and bystanders would have been in less danger. Couldn't they have kept him away from other people, used rubber bullets, or slowed him down with pepper spray?
But Green said the unpredictability of mentally ill people makes every encounter potentially hazardous. In Barre's case, they knew more about Barre's condition than they often do, and therefore "approached with some caution" that day.
Barre struggled for years with the hallucinations and dramatic mood swings of bipolar schizoaffective disorder, and had been committed four times for treatment at Tulsa mental health hospitals, according to his mother, Etta Barre.
Fearing the worst after discovering he'd been off his medication for two months, family members had asked the sheriff's office to take him for an evaluation. Three days before her son was shot, the desperate mother said she even offered deputies the keys to her son's house. But because he hadn't committed a crime, deputies chose not to make him comply.
Twice, a skittish Barre threatened to harm them, but they left each time because he posed no threat to public safety, the sheriff's office said hours after the shooting.
Jeff Golden runs DE-ESCALATE, a program that trains officers to bring confrontations to peaceful resolution.
He said authorities did what they had to do when they fired on Joshua Barre.
"Public safety appears to be the primary goal of the officers, and the fact that no one else was injured by a man wielding knives while walking nearly a mile demonstrates patience and thoughtful action by the officers, in my opinion," Golden said.
Etta Barre disagrees. She said deputies could have called her, or radioed for more backup, because they were already familiar with her son's deteriorating mental state.
"It was handled very sloppy," she told the AP. "When they pulled up that name, they should have been in touch. Nobody getting hurt; nobody getting murdered."
The real problem is that too many cities depend on police to compensate for a lack of properly-funded mental health programs, said Honberg, the policy adviser.
"There maybe isn't a right answer in this particular case, but I say there's a right answer to at least reduce these types of encounters taking place across the country, and that is we need to invest in mental health services with ongoing care that keep patients stable," he said.