We don’t know exactly what happened inside a Roseville apartment overnight where a man having a mental health crisis was shot to death after stabbing a police dog.
But based on the information provided so far, it’s worth discussing whether there’s a more effective way to respond to these situations.
Let’s take reporter Jon Collins’ story point by point.
Officers were called to an apartment building on the 1600 block of County Road B in Roseville at about 10 p.m. Wednesday because neighbors heard pounding, profanity and breaking glass coming from the man’s unit, according to a statement from department spokesperson Lt. Lorne Rosand.
Police say residents told officers that the man had a history of “mental outbursts.”
This is pretty critical information because it gets to why Minnesota established mental health crisis teams a few years ago. Here’s the description from the Minnesota Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness:
All too frequently, law enforcement or EMT’s are called to respond to mental health crises and they often lack the training and experience to effectively handle the situation. Mental health crisis teams have the training and know-how to help resolve mental health crises.
At last check, 57 of the 87 counties in Minnesota have mental health crisis teams. Ramsey County, in which Roseville is located, is one of those counties. Situations like this are the reason why it exists.
We don’t know if there was anyone else in the apartment, something that obviously would have been a concern to responding officers.
Officers asked the man in the apartment if he was alright. He replied that he was fine, but refused to open the door.
What happened next wasn’t at all likely to deescalate the situation, but may well have hinged on whether they thought someone else might have been in danger beside the man himself. The reasons for what happened next, however, suggest the man was probably alone.
Based on the night’s incidents, comments the man had made about being robbed and an active warrant in the name of the apartment’s resident for previously providing a false name to police, officers decided to force their way into the apartment, Rosand said.
Even more upsetting to a person already in a mental health crisis, a police dog was used. Now, they’re adding the noise and snarl to an already dangerous situation.
Entry was made and the apartment was searched. As the officers were searching the unit’s bedroom, the canine alerted to the room’s closet,” Rosand said in the statement. “When officers ordered the person in the closet to surrender, he opened the closet door and stabbed the canine in the head.”
This next paragraph is the one with all the questions.
Police officials say two officers fired at the man because they feared for their lives.
And perhaps they were in danger. We don’t know their position in the room relative to a man with a knife. We don’t know whether they could have slowly backed out of the apartment — admittedly leaving a police dog behind would be difficult — to protect themselves. We don’t know whether the man made a threatening move toward them from which they could not escape. We don’t know the extent to which they feared for their lives.
In short, we weren’t there.
That said, this remains a significant problem for law enforcement and the mentally ill. If you have a family member in crisis, you have to think twice before calling the police for help because you don’t know whether you’re setting in motion a chain of events that could lead to their death. It happens frequently.
I learned this first from a discussion with Mary Meyer, a Woodbury police officer on loan to the state when I talked to her for the 2004 MPR series examining the state’s mental health system that existed at the time.
Her brother suffered from a mental illness and police were called to her parents home one night in her early days as a cop.
“I heard the county get dispatched to my house. Thirty four year old man with his hands around a 57-year old woman,” she told me at the time. “It was my house. I asked the dispatcher for the cellphone of the responding officer and I said to the cop when I got on his cellphone, ‘Just please don’t kill him.'”
She acknowledged, however, that she knew that a cop killing her brother could be the only solution.
That’s when she decided she wanted to teach cops how to respond to situations involving the mentally ill.
I haven’t talked to her since then. But I think of her every time a person with a mental illness ends up dead.
I think of her a lot.