Another 911 call to police for help in dealing with a person suffering from mental health issues has ended with that person’s death.
On Sunday, Easton police responded to a call requesting a wellness check on a woman who had told her son she had injected herself with a dangerous amount of insulin in an attempt to kill herself. According to a press release from Bristol County District Attorney Thomas M. Quinn III, when police arrived, the woman, Marianne Griffiths, 56, allegedly threatened to shoot them and herself. The officers evacuated the other people in the home and exited the residence. At that point, Griffiths ran back upstairs, approached the front entry to the home and pointed what appeared to be a rifle at the officers. An Easton police officer then fired one shot, which killed her. The gun Griffiths had turned out to be what the DA called “a pump action BB gun.”
This sad outcome shines another spotlight on the issue of how police respond to mental health emergencies. It also highlights an unfortunate police instinct for fogginess when it comes to initial details and then stonewalling while an investigation is underway.
The police officer who fired the weapon was put on administrative leave but not identified. The DA’s office, which is now investigating this fatal police shooting, said it will have no further comment while the investigation is pending.
The press release gives the time of the 911 call — 11:30 a.m. — but not the time police arrived on the scene or the time the shot was fired. Was a body camera worn by the officer who fired the shot? We don’t know. If so, when will the video be released? According to the DA’s press release, “preliminary information obtained thus far indicates Griffiths suffered from long-term mental health issues and suicidal ideation.” Was there a better way to respond to this 911 call?
In cases involving mental health emergencies, that is a common question.
Family members and community activists still lack answers to key questions a month after the fatal shooting of Sayed Faisal, 20, by a Cambridge police officer. That deadly encounter happened on Jan. 4, after Cambridge police responded to a 911 call about a man, later identified as Faisal, who had jumped out of a window and was reportedly harming himself with a knife and shards of glass. Following a foot chase, Faisal allegedly moved toward officers with that knife (later identified as a kukri knife, a variant of a machete). After a nonlethal sponge round failed to stop Faisal, a Cambridge officer who has yet to be identified fatally shot him. Cambridge police do not wear body cameras so video evidence of the incident is not available. But again, a call to police for help concerning someone who was self-harming ended up with the death of the person in need of help.
In Easton, police say they requested assistance from a regional response team known as the Metropolitan Law Enforcement Council or “Metro-Lec.” According to its website, this is a consortium of 46 local police and sheriff departments whose members receive specialized training. One of the units listed is designed to handle stress situations. Who responded and what they actually did in this case is unclear. According to the press release from Easton police, after police set up a perimeter, the woman “approached the front entry way of the home still in possession of a weapon. An Easton Officer, fearing for their safety, fired a single shot at the woman.” Negotiators then made several attempts to speak to her by phone, but she didn’t answer — because she was dead.
According to a recent Washington Post-ABC poll, public confidence in police dropped after the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols in Memphis last month. Americans are increasingly doubtful that law enforcement officers are properly trained in using appropriate force or that they treat white and Black people equally, according to this poll. Confidence in police is hardly helped when you see video of police chasing down and killing a double amputee who is running away from them on the stumps of his legs. Yes, the man had a knife. But how much of a threat could he really be to a band of armed police officers?
Police put themselves at risk on every call, and at any moment a person with a weapon can turn on them and anyone else trying to help. That is understood. But there has to be some sense of proportion to the response. And at a time when mental health emergencies are on the rise, much more thought should be given to alternatives to armed police responses.
Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.