As an investigation continues into the fatal shooting by Newton police of a 28-year-old resident experiencing a mental health crisis, advocates are calling on local leaders to prioritize mental health resources as part of efforts to overhaul the city’s police department.
Michael Conlon, 28, was shot Jan. 5 inside the building where he lived in Newton Highlands after he threatened the owner of a candy store, then attacked officers with a knife and fire extinguisher, according to Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan. A Newton police clinician with mental health expertise was at the scene, but did not enter the Lincoln Street building due to safety concerns.
The shooting occurred as a city task force, spurred by the Black Lives Matter movement, conducts a review of Newton’s police department. The city is conducting a separate effort to find a new permanent chief of the force.
For advocates in Newton, addressing mental health concerns must be front and center in the efforts to rethink city policing and choose a new leader.
“There is no police reform without provisions for mental health resources and mental health law reform,” said Dr. Jhilam Biswas, director of the Psychiatry, Law and Society Program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Biswas, who lives in Newton Highlands, said in an e-mail that local officials must streamline the integration of psychiatric professionals in crisis situations to help de-escalate them. Those efforts could include using therapy techniques to guide the person to a calmer state, and providing effective medications to help transport them to an emergency room or crisis center.
The shooting in Newton, she said, should be thoroughly reviewed to determine how mental health resources may have resolved the situation without a fatality.
“I think all the stakeholders in our community are left feeling helpless and questioning why our mental health system, the legal system, and law enforcement cannot work together more seamlessly in moments of a mental health crisis,” Biswas said.
The day after the shooting, hundreds of people gathered at a protest outside Newton police headquarters. Defund NPD, which organized the demonstration, called for an independent investigation and that the city withdraw officers as first responders for mental health crises.
Bill Humphrey, a city councilor representing Newton’s Ward 5, said police did not need to use deadly force, and they were not the appropriate people to resolve the incident. “This tragedy was avoidable,” Humphrey said on Twitter.
Police said the incident began when Conlon entered the Indulge! candy store, located below his apartment on Lincoln Street. Conlon had a knife, and he pleaded with the store owner to escort him to the third floor and help him confront a neighbor, authorities said.
After the store owner called 911, two police officers pursued Conlon upstairs to the second floor where his apartment was located. He allegedly flashed the knife in the hallway, Ryan’s office said. Police then pursued Conlon to the third floor.
Additional officers were called, and two State Police officers joined the two Newton officers inside the building.
Ryan said police offered to contact Conlon’s family, and asked him to drop the knife.
Conlon refused, grabbed a fire extinguisher, and advanced on officers while holding the knife in a threatening manner, Ryan said. Two Newton officers shot Conlon after efforts to subdue him with a beanbag shotgun and Taser failed.
A spokeswoman for Ryan’s office said the names of the officers involved will be released at the conclusion of the investigation. The two Newton officers remain on temporary paid administrative leave, according to Ryan’s office.
David Procopio, a State Police spokesman, said the two troopers at the scene during the shooting have returned to full duty following a brief administrative leave.
It is believed that the last time Newton police shot a person was following a robbery of a Centre Street bank in 1973, according to acting police chief Howard Mintz. In that incident, the robbery suspect died after he exchanged gunfire with Newton police.
In a phone interview Monday, Mayor Ruthanne Fuller said Conlon’s death has deeply impacted many in Newton.
“The ripple effects of this are wide and deep, all of us are so saddened and shook that a young man in a mental health crisis was armed and dangerous to himself and others,” Fuller said.
“One of the important issues that we will be grappling with in the coming days is how best to handle people experiencing mental health issues here in the city,” the mayor said.
The city is working to hire a new police chief to lead to the department, an effort that Fuller said she anticipates will lead to interviews with candidates next month. Newton has been without a permanent chief since David MacDonald retired in July.
That process is separate from the task force review. Fuller said she supported a request from the city’s Police Reform Task Force for an additional four weeks to continue its work, including a review of the shooting. The task force had been expected to deliver recommendations to the mayor Feb. 1.
In a statement published on the city’s website after the shooting, the task force said it was created to help ensure that all people in Newton can feel safe and secure, regardless of factors such as race or mental illness.
Neighbors in Newton Highlands have been shaken by the tragedy.
“He was a son. He was a brother. No one deserved to be killed like that,” said Frank Ferrera, owner of Angelo’s barbershop on Lincoln Street, following the shooting.
According to an obituary that appeared Jan. 10 in the Globe, Conlon was survived by his mother and father, along with several family members.
He took pride in helping his family: “It brings such joy to my heart to take the burden of (sic) my loved ones shoulders, and I always do anything I can to enhance that,” Conlon said on his LinkedIn profile.
Suzi Newman, president of the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said family members want to be able to help loved ones experiencing a mental health crisis, but the Newton shooting has left some unsure about calling for aid.
“They want to trust making the call to police will be the right decision,” said Newman, who lives in Wellesley. “In some family members’ minds, there is an obvious concern.”
Newman called on the city to prioritize crisis intervention teams and require that Newton officers participate in related training programs. Newman said the city also needs a process to allow a clinician to speak safely with people during a crisis situation.
“It defeats the purpose of having a clinician with [police] if they can’t participate,” Newman said.
John Hilliard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.