Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Dealing with the mentally ill who are scary, view from a priest

Understandably members of our community are asking if there is a better professional way to handle such encounter.
Chang attempting to communicate with police. Photo courtesy of Ski-Epic
Errol Chang attempting to find a way to surrender? 

Letters to the Editor, 4/15/14.  "Police and the mentally ill" by Rev. Piers Lahey

"Editor:  I, too, am so very sad at the death of Errol Chang and I know that recent writers have been critical of the response of law enforcement personnel to the crisis. Was it necessary to fire their weapons at someone who was clearly disturbed, perhaps mentally ill? Could there have been a different solution?

I do not have the wisdom to answer that. But I would ask folks to remember that our police officers and sheriff's deputies are called to be in situations where most of us would rather not go -- when human life or a neighborhood is at risk, in danger.

Years ago, I had a funeral at my first parish, Star of The Sea in San Francisco. During the sermon, a middle-aged man walked up the main aisle, then, rather politely, interrupted me and said, "Excuse me, Reverend, I have no idea who is in that coffin but whoever it is, his life means nothing compared to all those who lost their lives in Vietnam."

SWAT team engaging the house. Photo Courtesy of Ski-Epic
What happened? SWAT team enters the house
At that point the funeral directors saw the man and started running up the aisle of the church to intercept him. The fellow ran out the side door. The SFPD found him about three blocks away, and he had a loaded handgun in his coat. I and all the people in the church, were at the mercy of this fellow if he had decided to use his weapon. Was he disturbed? Was he violent? Was he dangerous? Was he mentally ill? No one in the church had any idea. But it was dedicated police officers who apprehended the guy, took him for psychiatric treatment (PTSD) and clearly prevented a tragedy.

Later still at Star of The Sea, I was walking south along 8th Avenue towards Geary and noticed a woman coming toward me. I glanced at her briefly,smiled in greeting politely. Then she came running after me, grabbed my arm and asked me, "Why did you order me to kill my children?" I told her that I was a clergyman and would never say such a thing to another person. "Yes you did...I heard you," the woman said. Then she swung a large shopping bag toward me, which had several large glass bottles inside. I managed to block it with my left arm, but it hurt...boy, did it hurt! The woman seemed to snap out of it for a moment and this gave me a chance to escape. I got to the church office and we called the police. The woman was found shortly after and was taken to a psychiatric hospital for evaluation/treatment. I wish that Errol Chang had been given the chance for a 5150 hold......but I can't second guess the actions of the police officers who responded with lethal force to a mentally ill man. I wasn't there. But I will always remember just how scared I was when that woman swung the bottles at my head."

Related The Weekly Fog/Luke Quevedo, 4/14/14, Oceana High School newspaper. "Pacifica man killed in standoff with Daly City SWAT team." article with photographs. Note:  photographs are from this article, courtesy of  Ski-epic.  See full photographs and video direct from Ski-epic.

Posted by Kathy Meeh

1 comment:

Hutch said...

A very thoughtful letter reverend Lahey.