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LETTERS

Fatal police shooting in Newton underscores difficult intersection of mental health, public safety

Newton residents watch on Lincoln Street in the aftermath of a fatal police shooting.
Newton residents watch on Lincoln Street in the aftermath of a fatal police shooting.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

‘His name was Michael, and he was our neighbor. He deserved to live.’

The Globe has reported on the police killing of my Newton neighbor Michael Conlon (”Police kill man in Newton shooting,” Jan. 6, “DA details fatal police shooting,” Jan. 7, Metro). A Patch.com article describes Michael as a gentle man who brought roses to the graves of friends who died young. I can’t stop thinking about this 28-year-old who needed care and was fatally shot instead.

In a town forum, several people have justified the killing, saying law enforcement needed to “neutralize” the “threat.” When does a kind but troubled man become a threat to be eliminated?

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Conlon was suffering a mental health crisis, and he reportedly held a knife and a fire extinguisher. Police fired a beanbag at him and Tased him, which a State Police official called attempts at “de-escalation,” before responding with gunfire.

The message of this incident cuts deep for anyone with loved ones struggling with mental illness. When does a life lose its precious value?

We need new systems to respond to crises with true de-escalation tactics and to prioritize the safety and dignity of everyone involved. These issues are complex, but there must be something better.

His name was Michael, and he was our neighbor. He deserved to live. What else is there to say, except that he deserved to live.

Elizabeth Szanton

Newton


Better crisis intervention needed to prevent such tragedies

We want to express our heartbreak on hearing of the death of the young Newton man killed by police last week. Acknowledging that we have read only the details reported in the media, we board members of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Newton/ Wellesley recognize this tragedy of the shooting of an individual with “emotional troubles” as an event that occurs too often.

In our NAMI support groups and Family-to-Family education program, we teach participants the two elements in navigating a mental health crisis: de-escalation and seeking outside help (for example, a friend, relative, mental health provider, or emergency responder). Given that psychotic symptoms can make an individual feel afraid or overwhelmed, we stress the importance of providing “immediate protection and support to the person experiencing the crisis.”

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While awaiting more details about the incident, we ask to prioritize community-based programs, such as Crisis Intervention Teams, designed to take an interdisciplinary approach during mental health crises. The young man who was shot to death by police lived in our town. Indeed, the same thing could have happened to one of our loved ones. We advocate that changes be initiated immediately to prevent such a tragedy from ever occurring again.

Suzanne Newman

President of the board of directors

National Alliance on Mental Illness Newton/ Wellesley

Newtonville


Take a closer look at police training

I know that without being on the scene, I cannot have all the facts in the fatal shooting of Michael Conlon. With that caveat, I suspect that police responded as we would expect them to respond to a 911 call of a man armed with a knife — and that is precisely the problem.

Ironically, a mental health clinician was on the scene but, according to your reporting, “did not enter the building due to safety concerns.” Police pursued the 28-year-old man to the third floor, and perhaps because he perceived that he was trapped, he attempted to stab the officers despite being shot with a beanbag and being Tasered.

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As a physician trained in systems issues, I do not fault the police for responding in the ways that they were trained. The problem is the training. I believe that in handling people with mental illness who pose a danger, there are other ways to defuse a potentially lethal situation. Could the police not have evacuated the building and then taken more time to negotiate with this man?

Rather than pointing fingers, let’s use our energy to learn better methods for defusing dangerous situations with mentally ill people and then pay for the requisite police training and necessary staffing with people with behavioral health training to help avoid tragedies such as this from being repeated.

Dr. Rich Parker

Newton Highlands