From Jake’s story
Suicide by Police
…………If you have a child who suffers from bipolar disorder, you are almost certain to encounter the police and the criminal justice system at some point. In Jake’s case, these encounters occurred with increasing frequency as his disease progressed. By 2003, there had already been several situations that involved law enforcement, but nothing could have prepared me for Jake’s attempt to commit suicide by police.
After they had been dating a while, Beth’s mother wanted to meet Jake’s family. So on February 23, 2003, she and Beth came to our house. We had a nice visit together and Jake behaved like a gentleman. I think Beth’s mom left feeling fairly satisfied that Jake came from a nice family.
After our visit, I started to drive Beth and Jake back to his apartment. I had refused to buy Jake another car after he wrecked his Jeep Cherokee, and Beth had recently had an accident in her BMW and it was being repaired. She was looking for a new car, so we decided to stop at a used car dealership to see what was available.
As we drove, Jake became increasingly agitated. He began yelling and behaving strangely. When we stopped at the car dealership, he got out and started jumping on top of the cars. He bounced from hood to hood and was talking in an endless stream of babble. It was obvious that we needed to leave and get him home.
I herded him into the backseat of the car and Beth sat up front with me. For some reason, he grabbed a clipboard I had in the car and began hitting me over the head with it from behind. It was so bad that I was forced to pull over.
“Jake, you’re going to have to get out of the car,” I told him. “I can’t drive like this. You’re going to cause me to have a wreck.”
It was one of those awful times that caregivers are forced to deal with when you must make a decision about how to protect yourself and others as your loved one spirals out of control. When a person with a mental illness commits violence, it is most often a family member who is the target and it is critical that you know when to take the necessary actions to protect yourself and your family.
On this particular afternoon, we weren’t terribly far from his apartment, and I felt it would be safer for Jake to walk home than to continue to drive with him hitting me. We were near the 610 West Loop in the Meyerland area when Jake got out. I then pulled into a restaurant parking lot with Beth to collect my wits. Beth and I began talking about what had just happened. A half-hour into our conversation, my cell phone rang. It was the Houston Police. “Sir, your son has been shot,” the officer told me.
I hurried to the site of the shooting near where I had just left Jake, and when I arrived, the scene was roped off. Jake had already been taken by ambulance to Ben Taub, Houston’s leading trauma hospital. The police began to question me, asking who I was, who Jake was and why he was jumping in front of cars. They wanted a lot of information from me, but the only thing they would tell me about Jake was that he had been shot. They didn’t know if he was dead or alive. They told me I would have to go to the hospital to find out about his condition.
Later, I pieced together the story of what had happened. After Jake got out of the car, he began jumping in front of cars on the freeway. Drivers had to swerve out of the way to avoid hitting him. The Houston Police received calls from several drivers saying that a man was trying to commit suicide. The police responded and stopped traffic on the freeway. No one with experience in dealing with the mentally ill or with training in crisis intervention was called, even though it was a response to a suicide attempt.
The policemen said they approached Jake with their guns drawn. “Hey, what are you doing?” they yelled at him.
They said Jake started running toward them. He was screaming, “Kill me! Kill me! I want to die.”
They backed up, telling him, “No! Don’t come any further. Back up!”
Once again, Jake yelled, “Kill me! Kill me!”
They shot him in the stomach.
During the ensuing investigation, one of the police officers reported that Jake had found a small screwdriver in the grass beside the road and was raising the newly-found screwdriver in a stabbing motion as he ran towards them. That action, said the officer, gave the police at the scene probable cause to believe that Jake was threatening them with a lethal weapon. They “had no choice but to shoot him.”
I was, and still am, highly skeptical of this explanation. For Jake to have looked down at that moment, at that place, and to have found a screwdriver simply lying by the road seemed unlikely to me. Even if Jake had found a screwdriver, the police clearly had no plan of action. There was no coordination, discussion, expectation or plan for confronting someone who was trying to commit suicide and might not be cooperative. There was no effort to talk him out of it. A Taser was not used to stop him. Instead, the Houston Police responded to a man trying to commit suicide by shooting him. Sadly, this is often the most common response by police in America to dealing with a person with mental illness in a serious situation, no matter how much training officers have.
Today, the police are both respected and feared. We all rely upon the police to keep order and protect us. We don’t think twice about calling them if a need arises. And in fact, the overwhelming majority of Americans never have an encounter with police. But for many who do, there are often negative—and sometimes deadly—consequences.
I don’t mean to imply that all police officers are out to shoot someone. But all too often, there are news reports of police officers that seemed eager to use their guns to solve what seemingly are non-life threating situations. When police officers feel threatened, they are trained to protect themselves at all costs. They also expect all citizens, including those with mental illness, to obey police officers’ commands without question. When they don’t, there are bound to be serious consequences, and even death.
Such was the case with Jake.
No knowing whether Jake was dead or alive, Beth and I rushed to Ben Taub Hospital. We were told that Jake was in surgery. I tried repeatedly to find out how he was. They couldn’t tell me anything. For hours we sat in the waiting room trying to get information from anyone who would talk to us.
When the surgery was finally over, the surgeon came to the waiting room. He told us that the bullet had passed through Jake’s stomach and out of his back, narrowly missing his spine. It had caused major damage to his intestines. It was a miracle he was alive.
He was in intensive care for days. Then, he was moved to a regular hospital room. When I visited him, I noticed that a police officer was stationed outside his door, sitting in a chair. Obviously, he had been involved in a confrontation with police, but no one would explain why the police were there 24/7. I went to visit Jake every day and I stayed with him as long as I could. Debbie and Beth also visited, as did Jake’s psychiatrist. Gradually, his condition began to improve.
When I arrived for a visit on March 1, Jake was gone.