The unanswerable questions in Cold Spring

This is the part of the day — around 11 a.m. or so — when the pressure is on to put something new and fresh on NewsCut. A news blog is a beast that has to constantly be fed and most of the time, I can usually find something that fits. Sometimes it’s funny or at least a little offbeat; most of the time it’s a story that’s out of the glare of the daily news.

But not today.

Everything I’m looking at in the world of news looks trivial to me in the aftermath of the death of Tom Decker, the Cold Spring police officer who was killed last night when he went to check on a man who might be suicidal, MPR reports.

Like you, perhaps, I don’t really know what to write and yet I have these questions without answers at which I want to scream my frustration.

I look at this picture, and I don’t see a cop. I see a kid.


A kid. The same word Cold Spring Mayor Doug Schmitz used this morning. “There’s a lot of people in shock wondering how we could lose such a nice young officer,” Schmitz said. “Tom was a very well-liked kid.”

I see a kid who cared about his town and died making sure someone else in town was OK, not at all different from the viral video I pointed to yesterday of a cop who bought boots and socks for a homeless man in New York, because the regular folks were walking by laughing at him.

I’m aware of the indecent opportunism that people with an agenda have at times like this, and yet I see yet another shooting in Minnesota that should have us asking how people who might have some mental health issues are able to get a gun and kill four kids’ father? But we can’t get that answer, partly because when Minnesota passed the concealed carry law, its benefactors made sure we couldn’t get an answer to that question. It is illegal for the police in Cold Spring — or anywhere else — to answer this question: “Did the person who killed Tom Decker have a permit for the gun?” (note: if, indeed, he carried it at some point)

It’s illegal to answer that question in the case of the man in Little Falls who finished off two teen burglars with a “clean shot to the chin.” It’s illegal to answer that question in the case of the man who shot up the office in Minneapolis in October before killing himself.

What if we knew the answer to that question? Maybe we could do something so that other 31-year-old cops don’t end up dead on a street outside a bar, and maybe we could do it in a way that doesn’t send everybody off to their corners on talk radio. Maybe it could be in the interest of something we have in common. Maybe.

I see another story that may involve someone with a mental illness who didn’t, couldn’t, or wouldn’t get mental health treatment and wonder why people still think they don’t have a significant, vested interest in Minnesota’s mental health system if they or their immediate family don’t have a mental health problem? We all have a mental health problem.

I see the usual questions of faith that I have in times like this. The same ones I wrote about after the shootings in Colorado. I see a story in the Fargo Forum this morning that a lawmaker says it’s “immoral” not to mine coal, gas, and oil because “God put it there for us.” And I wonder why so many issues can be explained away with God’s intent but nobody can explain why God put a young man in Cold Spring to check on a guy with a gun?

I see a media that was — at least momentarily — obsessed with a dead cop’s possible relationship to a famous football player, as if that’s an important question at a time like this, especially when there are so many other questions needing asking and answering.

I want to make things all better for four kids in Cold Spring today and, of course, I can’t. I don’t know what to do and I recoil at the notion that the we are powerless to do anything but cry out and move on. But, perhaps, we are.

  • kurt nelson

    My old man was an officer, though long retired. I grew up with the fact some people hated him because he chose to wear the uniform, and no other reason. This is so sad, and pointless, but remember, guns don’t kill, people kill.

  • Susan

    If people didn’t have easy access to guns, would they kill? A mentally ill man with a knife or stick is significantly less dangerous than one with a gun.


    My dad was a cop, too. My mom was a dispatcher.

    I have another question to add to Bob’s: was this an attempted “suicide by cop?” A person wishing to be killed by police might think killing an officer could strengthen the odds they would not be taken alive. Perhaps, after firing the fatal shots, the suspect changed his mind about dying. We may never know.

    Such a sad story, all around. Heartbreaking.

  • Albatross

    Reagan closed the nation’s mental health facilities in the 1980s and since that time the nation’s mentally ill have lived on the street or been incarcerated without treatment. We have the highest per-capita incarceration rate of any nation that has ever existed but no national solution to the problem of severe mental illness. And we have no universal health coverage, so the mentally ill cannot usually afford treatment. But we DO have lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of guns. Tragedies like this are therefore inevitable. Rather than bemoan these tragedies after the fact, we need to work to prevent these tragedies in the first place.

  • Bob Collins

    Deinstitutionalization of the mentally really isn’t just another grenade in the political wars; it’s far more complex than that. Deinstitutionalization actually started as an initiative under Kennedy and anyone who’s ever seen Titicut Follies knows it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

    President Carter supported and signed the Mental Health Systems Act which began to transfer the responsibility to states.

    Even by the time Reagan took office, the institutionalization of the mentally ill had already dropped by 75 percent.

    But even in the 70s, it was clear that people who would otherwise be committed, were not getting support in their communities as an alternative. That’s one of the reasons why SSDI was created.

    Where Reagan’s involvement came was when he cut federal human service programs that supported the deinstituionalized, not so much that he closed the institutions in the first place.

    But even today, as the 2004 Bad State of Mind series showed, a major problem is the fractured system. You can stand on a county border in Minnesota and have two different mental health systems , depending on in which direction you’re looking.

  • David G

    Hopefully this isn’t too far off topic, but I would also suggest that this incident will make interactions with a cop all the more deadly for anyone with a mental illness or other disability that might cause any perceived “failure to obey” a command from an officer.

  • Erik

    MPR working for some agenda after a tragedy, once again. Stop trying to rally for a cause before you have all of the information. Other than pushing a liberal anti-gun agenda, how would knowing if this guy had a carry permit help? The people that need to know this personal information, the police and prosecutors, have it! Also, according to the U.S. Constitution, this guy is still technically innocent, so you want perosnal information released about someone that has not had his day in court. SFgate reported the alleged shooter had been arrested and undergoing domestic abuse counseling and if this author did a little research he would realize that he could not get or have a carry permit or buy a firearm. How does the MPR not know this, but a news agency on the other side of country does. If you are against conceal and carry permits than you are against law abiding citizens protecting themselves with a pistol, which means you don’t agree with part of the U.S. Constitution. Why do I never hear of anyone complaining about the countless murders with illegal guns and people working to fix that? Why not talk about the mass majority of law abiding citizens with permits that cause no trouble? People, Just say you are against guns at the beginning of articles like this and it will save alot of time. If you acutally read the rules behind getting a permit to carry or purchase, they are pretty specific and strict; you can’t judge someone mentally unstable if they never get checked out. If these rules are not enough than move to California or New York, and if you believe handguns and assault weapons should be banned, move to Great Britain or Australia because that is not the America the founding fathers wanted.

  • Bob Collins

    Well, Erik, it’s not like I didn’t see that comment coming but on this point…

    // how would knowing if this guy had a carry permit help? The people that need to know this personal information, the police and prosecutors, have it!

    One doesn’t ask the question to determine whether he had a permit. One asks the question to determine whether the people had any review at all and if so, what went wrong? And you ask that question in the interest of having that not go wrong again. That’s not a threat to you.

    As you astutely pointed out, anyone who violated an order of protection or has a history of domestic violence, should not have a gun in the state of Minnesota. And yet, at least one did.

    Now, you can invoke all the usual bromides and wave the flag about liberals and public radio and banning guns and all that — God knows we’ve heard them before — to stop a conversation. I get it. You think there’s a conspiracy to take away your gun and some blogger sitting in his easy chair is part of it. I can’t really help you with that.

    But I think it’s healthy to have an intelligent one about why 31 year old cops end up dead on a street outside a bar in Cold Spring and what are the practical ways we can prevent that from happening.

    As I mentioned in the piece, we should be approaching the issue from what we have in common. I think there might well be a way to do that Erik without threatening all that you hold dear.

    What is it? I don’t know, Erik. I don’t know.

  • BJ

    While I think Erik’s post is a little harsh, I also wonder why the question of permit to carry status is brought up.

    I think Erik has one item wrong, “arrested and undergoing domestic abuse counseling ” doesn’t automatically mean you can’t have a carry permit.

    I’m not a lawyer but a simple search though the statues and there is a lot of ‘may’ and not a lot of ‘must’ in the language dealing with domestic abuse and revoking or restricting carry permit. If a hand gun was used in the domestic (actual or threatened) then it looks pretty automatic otherwise it’s not (at least by these layman’s eyes).

  • BJ

    PS I’ve learned to actually look at the laws and court opinions because of Bob Collins. I’m a better person for it, thanks Bob.

  • kennedy

    The conversation about mental health facilities sounds good and all, but there is an inherent conflict in the values of our society. We place a high value on personal freedom. That means “innocent until proven guilty”. It means it is hard to force someone to take their meds or live in a facility that provides mental health care.

    Surely there are a lot of people seeking help who can’t get it. There are also a lot of people whose condition results in them avoiding the care they need. How do we determine when it is appropriate for the state to take away an individual’s freedom in order to care for them?

  • Bob Collins

    The law has minimally answered the question as “when a threat to oneself or others” and also for 72 hours.

  • kurt nelson


    I am not anti-gun, I have a bunch of them, though I pity those who are so fearful they have to carry a firearm. The 2nd is still not an absolute, at least with Heller there is no absolute on guns.

    Easy access, no background check at gun shows, there are sensible measures which can be put in place at the federal level to reduce the availability of firearms to those we as a society deem unworthy of ownership. All without infringing on your right to own.

    Remember, gun rights have increased under Obama, with his signature in 2009 opening the National Parks to unrestricted firearm possession (prior to that act, you could only have a disassembled firearm in a National Park).

  • Bob Collins

    // I also wonder why the question of permit to carry status is brought up.

    I had just answered that question, I believe.

  • Bonnie Wilcox (@Bonnie_Wilcox)

    Thanks, Bob, for always raising the hard, hard questions. Having walked this summer with a 37-year old nephew who, in the midst of a mental health crisis, told me that the police who had been called, “would not take him alive.” I’m thankful they never found my nephew, especially after the events of this week. My nephew has easy access to guns in his home state (western U.S.) and we have yet to be successful in asking him, during a time of more clarity, to give up his guns.

    We have to face the hard, hard questions for the sake of all our children.

  • Michele

    Yup mental illness and guns goes together like drinking and guns. Just a natural combination. Why, oh why, would society ever want to disrupt those combinations?

    How simple do you have to be not to see a problem here? Really, just how simple ….