A dispatcher answers a call in the St. Johns County Sheriff’s office to the non-emergency line. “My boyfriend threatened to kill himself twice now,” says a soft quivering voice. “What do I do and who do I call?”
Without responding to the inquiry, the dispatcher asks Kaitlyn Christine Lyons her address. Then whether he has weapons. Lyons says later in the call that he had a sword, but also volunteers to the dispatcher, “I can tell you that he won’t hurt me. I know that for a fact. He won’t touch me.”
It’s not ten minutes later that deputies are in Lyons’ home in St. Johns County, Florida, with assault rifles. They find the man, Justin Way, in his room, intoxicated, with the sword. And by the end of the May 11 incident, they have shot him dead.
“The only person Justin threatened was himself and I honestly don’t think he wanted to die,” Lyons told the Daily Beast. Way had been involuntarily institutionalized on three other occasions because of threats to hurt himself without trouble.
Lyons is the latest in a line of family members who saw their loved ones killed by the police, after calling for help with emotional distress. And to some observers, at least based on the details that have been reported thus far, this death seemed particularly, glaringly avoidable.
“It’s horrific,” said Claudia Center, an ACLU senior staff attorney focused on disability rights. “It’s hard to say which one’s the most egregious but this one is incredible. … I mean totally unnecessary killing of a person. I mean he’s contained in his own home. He’s not a danger to anyone else. He’s not holding anyone hostage.”
“My concern is that you know it’s estimated that about half of the shootings that police are involved in deal with mentally ill persons. So they’re not bank robbers,” said Lou Reiter, a consultant who trains police and testifies in use of force cases. He views this case as “all too common.” “I’ve been on too many of these types of cases,” he said, lamenting that most police academies only provide four to six hours of training on mental health issues, and much of that is only focused on the steps to involuntarily commit someone.
While police haven’t yet released the details of their internal investigation in Way’s case, the sheriff’s office has released audio of the 911 call a few other select details, including the fact that Lyons was removed from the home before the officers even went inside. And this information alone raises many alarming flags.
“If you had these two officers, and they know he has a concealed weapon in the bedroom, the last thing you want to do is go in the bedroom,” Reiter said. “You don’t want to put yourself in harm’s way unnecessarily.”
According to Justin’s mother, Denise Way, a detective told her that her son refused to put the sword down and officers responded by firing, because “that’s what we do.” She told the Daily Beast a detective then explained a phenomenon called “suicide by cop,” in which individuals provoke officers to kill them.
But in this case where Lyons was already out of the house and no other individuals were believed to be inside, Reiter pointed out, “there’s no indication at all in the materials I looked at that there was any need for haste. They needed to slow this down.” Slowing things down is a constant refrain in cases of police response to the mentally ill. But it runs counter to much traditional police wisdom about split-second responses.
That’s why Reiter and Center both honed in on the importance of intensive training and protocols, as well as the designation of mental health crisis teams.
“Unfortunately what’s happening around the country now, and you hear it from more and more people is, if I’ve got a relative or a family member who’s in an emotional crisis, the last thing I wanna do is call the cops cause they’re gonna come and kill them,” Reiter said.
Commander Chuck Mulligan of the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office told ThinkProgress he couldn’t provide any additional details until the police investigation was complete, which would take one to two months. But he urged observers not to rush to judgment.
“Law enforcement go into situations that are complex and difficult and deal with people who make decisions and so that’s what we’re investigating,” Mulligan said.
“Both of those deputies for some reason felt that they were in danger and both fired almost simultaneously on the individual,” Mulligan said. “So people can speculate. People can make conjecture. And we’ve all seen how that has played out in this country.”
Mulligan did hone in on the size and threat of the sword Way was carrying.
“We’ve released the photograph of the knife so that people understood it’s not like a small little pocket knife,” he said. “This knife could incapacitate someone with one throw or one swipe of this knife.”
He sent a photo of the sword:
Studies in several cities have found that about half of police shooting victims are mentally ill, and that the mentally ill are disproportionate victims of excessive police force. Center said the ACLU’s next focus is on moving the federal government to collect data on police shootings that includes information about mental illness.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed a case involving a shooting of a schizophrenic woman in mental health crisis, in which Reiter was an expert witness. The justices held that although San Francisco officers had violated city training protocol for dealing with the mentally ill, the officers were nonetheless justified in using deadly force against a woman in mental health crisis.