A wellness check by police ends with a son dead

There are plenty of incidents in the last few years that show why involving the police in a wellness check of someone in a mental health crisis is riskier than it should be. Far too often, distraught parents call the police for help and within hours, someone’s son or daughter is dead.

The latest victim is Austin Reeves, 26, of Hingham, Mass., who told his parents he just needed to be left alone in his room, where he was fretting over a breakup a week ago Saturday. His dog was with him. So was his gun.

“Don’t back me into a corner,” his father recalls his son saying, according to the Boston Globe today. “Because I’ll make it go away in four seconds.”

They didn’t know what to do. They called the police.

Dozens of them showed up. So did a military-style vehicle. Police dogs. And a SWAT team. They set up bright lights on the family’s lawn, the Globe said. Neighbors were called and told to stay inside.

“Please,” the father says he asked them, “why can’t you just let him go to sleep?”

Police told Austin’s father that his son had made a threat in that conversation, according to Reeves: that anyone who comes upstairs to get him would get hurt. That threat seemed enough to change the way police viewed the situation and its potential dangers, and it may have been the turning point in their response. After that, Reeves said, officers mentioned a SWAT team.

“You can’t do that,” he says he told them. “Where is the imminent threat?”

As more officers began arriving, police told Reeves and Harrison they had to leave the street. His mother felt discomfort to her core: Austin was here, and he needed her. The parents asked to stay, but police said no; this was protocol they had to follow. They led the couple — Harrison still in her bathrobe — on a roundabout exit route through surrounding yards. At one point, Reeves says, he started to run back, but an officer physically restrained him.

As they reached the corner, Harrison turned to look back at her home. Distant enough now to see the entire scene, she realized for the first time the full scale of what was happening: the street thick with police vehicles, teeming with armed officers in SWAT gear.

She fell to her knees on her neighbor’s lawn in horror. “Oh my God, oh my God,” she cried. “What are you doing? Is this really necessary?”

The scene was so chaotic, no one heard the shot from the bedroom that ended Austin’s life.

“It was totally preventable,” his father said. “He wasn’t a criminal. He didn’t have a hostage. This was a kid distressed about a girlfriend, and they turned it into a life-and-death situation.”

By all accounts, the police followed their protocol. Listening to a father isn’t in the protocol.

Archive: What went wrong in Roseville mental health police call? (MPR NewsCut)

  • Jerry

    You have to think at some time they are going to realise that “shock and awe” is not good policing.

    • Will that happen before people realize that calling the police for help is a dangerous idea?

      • Ickster

        I realized that this weekend when Justine Damond was shot. Probably should’ve realized it earlier.

      • the most fascinating part of that story is the assertion that all the of the military hardware makes police less likely to shoot, because the officers allegedly feel safer.

        • Ickster

          It certainly gives the appearance that it’s more about the opportunity to play out military fantasies rather than making it safe for police to assist.

  • Kat S.

    “By all accounts, the police followed their protocol.”

    I’m sick to death of that phrase. That phrase shouldn’t occur so often in conjunction with people in distress being killed. The “protocol” is beyond broken and we’re repairing it, at best, with sticky tape.

    My heart goes out to those parents and their son. That’s a waking nightmare.

    • crystals

      Exactly. We need to work on getting laws and protocols changed. It is time.

    • Amerisod

      I agree. It’s very common for police to hide behind bad protocol. The protocol can be counter-productive and following it can result in needless suffering and death, but they act like once they say they followed protocol, the investigation should end with no further action. That really shows that their goal is only to absolve themselves, but not to improve the system to enhance public safety.

  • Chris

    I would like to see a study examining why he and people like him thought he needed to have a gun. Guns have been so glorified as a symbol by the NRA and the fact is they make you less safe.

  • Barton

    this is so incredibly sad. a crisis hot line would be a good step…. like the one that just received emergency funding (from funds that appeared to be earmarked for its use to start with) to stay open in MN.

  • L. Foonimin

    When did the police become the first answer to all of our social needs? Before Reagan ended community funded care for the mentally ill there were measures to deal with those in crisis. Now we expect the police to respond appropriately to all kinds of situations for which they are not trained or equipped. If we want a police force that can be multi-lingual, do education, social work, mental health diagnosis/mental health first aid as well as law enforcement then we had better be prepared to pay appropriately for additional unique skill sets. Like teachers, police should be respected and compensated for the jobs they are expected to do.

    • When you militarize the police, you get an army. An army pretty much only knows how to do one thing.

      • QuietBlue

        Except the military has to follow use of force ROEs that are much stricter than what police seemingly have to follow, and have much more significant penalties for breaking.

  • Guest

    A) This is what SHOULD happen when a distraught person with a gun just might kill. Everything was done for the safety of others.

    B) Ask anybody how to increase stress, tension, anxiety and acting out. I bet it involves SWAT team showing up, being yelled at, put in jail against will your will, being treated as if you might kill others.

    C) State mental institutions that ensure care is given, meds are taken, people listened to as people are GOOD or BAD and should be shut down via court order?

    SEE we all get what we asked for…..whether we knew it or not……sigh 🙁

  • AmiSchwab

    avoid cops at all costs. plain and simple.

    • Jerry

      The problem is that the cops who would put their life on the line to protect you are the same cops who are involved in shootings or events like this. Acknowledging their necessity doesn’t mean we can’t expect them to do better.

  • lusophone

    The message that is coming across is, never call the police. It seems like that’s what they want too. Especially in Minneapolis and St. Paul, you get the impression that your very existence is inconveniencing them.

  • Amerisod

    Even if they did not call the police, but instead called for medical help, in many areas, other emergency services would then summon police because a gun is involved. This could result in the same mishandling of the situation.