Police Encounters and Mental Health Conditions – A Shooting in Blackwell

In May 2019, Blackwell, Oklahoma, police attempted to stop a vehicle driven by a woman firing a semiautomatic handgun out of her window. Ultimately, she turned her attention and weapon toward law enforcement and fired at them. A police lieutenant, who fired 60 rounds at the vehicle before it came to a stop, was charged with manslaughter in the death of the woman whose body was found in the driver’s seat.

A judge dismissed the manslaughter charge against the police officer in 2021. The order dismissed the criminal charge based on the totality of the circumstances, including the fact that the officer was pursuing a felon possessing a handgun who posed a threat to officers pursuing her. The judge noted that the woman did not exhibit signs of surrender as the police were giving chase.

Prosecutors appealed the order dismissing the first-degree manslaughter charge. In June 2023, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals refused to overturn the dismissal. A review of the dismissal order out of Kay County District Court reveals more of what happened during that Blackwell incident in 2019.

The deceased had a history of emotional issues

The decision dismissing the manslaughter charges against the police lieutenant reveals more about the facts underlying the charge. According to the testimony of Corporal Denton, the woman’s mother contacted police shortly after midnight on May 19, 2019, and reported that her daughter was exhibiting “delusional” behavior.

Cpl. Denton, who received training in crisis intervention through the police department, responded to the report and evaluated the daughter to determine if she was a candidate for an emergency detention order. He determined she was not and instructed the family to call the police again if the woman’s behavior changed.

That evening, Cpl. Denton received a report from the woman’s former husband about her posting on social media that she had a handgun. Denton spoke to the husband, who confirmed that a gun he owned was missing. Based on that information, the officer went looking for the woman.

During the pre-dawn hours of May 20, 2019, police received a report that a woman with a handgun fired shots at another vehicle after a traffic accident. Cpl. Denton eventually found the woman’s parked vehicle. She pointed a handgun at the officer, yelled at him, and fired in his direction. The officer returned fire, but the woman drove off until the lieutenant fired into her vehicle to end the pursuit.

Officer involvement and suspects’ psychological states

According to data compiled by the United States Justice Department on police encounters with the public, 23.7% of adults report having at least one encounter with police. Most of them, 13.7%, were initiated by a member of the public. Only 11.1% of encounters were initiated by the police. Police officers, especially those without proper training, face an extreme challenge when engaging one of the 60 million adults in the U.S. living with mental health conditions. To put that into a statistical perspective, one in five adults involved in police encounters could have a history of mental-health-related issues.

Encounters between police officers and people with psychiatric conditions are often dangerous for all parties. Obviously, this fact was on full display, as demonstrated by the 2019 Blackwell incident. Establishing crisis intervention teams within police agencies provides officers the training needed to conduct safer encounters with people who may be experiencing mental trauma, with the goal of de-escalating dangerous situations whenever possible.

Psychiatric health problems do not necessarily make someone dangerous

Involuntary confinement of every person exhibiting odd or bizarre behavior is not the goal of police crisis intervention teams. First and foremost, a “one-size-fits-all” approach does nothing but perpetuate the stigma and exacerbate the problem. All people, even those living with mental health conditions, have rights, including the right to enjoy their freedom without having it infringed upon. That is, so long as they can enjoy their freedom while refraining from endangering the general public as a result.

As the U.S. Supreme Court made clear in a 1975 ruling, unless a person experiencing a mental-health-related episode poses a danger to themself or to others, the state has no right to interfere with their freedom. Consequently, alternative measures must be considered and exhausted before depriving someone of life and liberty. As such, more training is needed, and crisis intervention should be a significant and mandatory aspect of all law enforcement curriculum and continuing education.

It appears that steps were taken to de-escalate the Blackwell incident, but sometimes, there is only so much that can be done. The outcome of that specific situation, along with so many others occurring daily across the county, is not what anyone wanted to see happen. Still, mental health is not a crime, it shouldn’t be treated as such, and all options should be explored prior to employing necessary steps aimed at ending a continuing threat to the general public.

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