Early in my career, I spent about 15 years working in a mobile crisis intervention program. We were the people who got called out at all hours of the day or night, either by local hospitals, police departments, or families when someone was in a mental health crisis. Our job was to provide on-the-spot mental health assessment and intervention.
One day I got called out to the local homeless shelter for a suicidal man. After attempting an intervention, it became obvious that the guy was not stable and needed to go to the hospital. I called for an ambulance and, as is often the case, an Aurora Police Department Officer showed up first. I was walking with him through the shelter toward where I had left the client with a staff person. As we came around the corner into the shelter’s kitchen, this suicidal man was walking toward us brandishing a large knife.
The officer with me immediately drew his firearm and pointed it at my client. He began shouting for him to put the knife down. I should point out here that we were about 10 feet away from this man. There is an unwritten “rule” when it comes to guns and assailants with knives – if someone is threatening you with a bladed weapon within 21 feet, deadly force is often justified.
So there we stood… a suicidal guy with a knife, a sweating, red-faced cop with his finger slowly depressing the trigger on his firearm. Never taking his eyes off the client, he directed me to grab the radio from his shoulder and call for backup. I did that, fully expecting to hear a gunshot. The guy was asking the cop to shoot him; begging him, really. I can’t really imagine what was going through the cop’s mind: wanting to make sure he got home ok? Not wanting to kill someone who was obviously not well? Worrying about my safety?
But he simply and calmly said, “Eric, I don’t want to shoot him. Please… make him understand.”
After a few minutes that felt like hours, the guy finally dropped the knife. The officer was able to get him into handcuffs and transported safely to the hospital. Once the client was in the back of his squad car, the cop – a HUGE guy with a deep voice and a no-nonsense attitude – sat down, looked up at me with an almost disbelieving look, and said “I almost killed him, Eric.” That’s when he started to shake.
I still see that cop once in a while around town. We usually joke around quite a bit. But the one time that incident came up, he didn’t joke. He got very serious and said, “That was almost a really bad day.”
In Aurora, we’re fortunate to live and work in a community whose police department, from the top down, has made it a priority to train their officers to respond to mental health emergencies with professionalism, patience, and – most importantly – dignity.
While some police departments take an “arrest first, talk later” approach to people with mental health issues, our police department has taken a “get them to the right place, no matter how long it takes” approach. They have also made deliberate efforts to partner with mental health providers like Family Counseling Service to meet the mental health needs of the people they come into contact with every day.
Our community is better for it.