The lack of training for dealing with mentally-ill persons has again been brought into focus with the police killing of Martin Stewart, a father of two from Diego Martin.
Relatives said Stewart often become erratic during episodes of illness and that Monday was one such day. They said he had suffered a seizure in the morning following which he became violent, grabbed a hammer and began destroying their house before moving on to the neighbour’s place. Afraid and unable to control him, they called the police for help. Confronted by a hammer-wielding man, the police responded by shooting him to death.
The killing was a sad and tragic end to a situation that raises questions not only about the response of the police officers involved but about the care and treatment of someone who became “erratic” following seizures. It is not clear whether Stewart was under treatment or an outpatient of some mental health facility. However, one would expect that when a call for police assistance is made in such cases, information is provided regarding the person’s mental condition. Assuming that was so on Monday, the police should have arrived prepared to subdue a mentally-disturbed person.
However, even if information about Stewart’s mental condition had not been communicated to the police, a man allegedly lunging at police with a hammer in hand does not easily explain an officer’s decision to shoot to kill. For, to feel so threatened that he would pull the trigger directly at Stewart, the officer would have had to come within reach of him and his hammer. Officers responding to the call should be required to explain why they were unable to subdue Stewart without resorting to the most extreme option.
It is cases like these that raise concern about the impact of the fearsome doctrine of “one shot, one kill” as espoused by Commissioner of Police Gary Griffith. Playing to a gallery of citizens under siege by criminals, the commissioner’s tough talk was understandably popular and gave the public hope that those holding the country to ransom would be put on the run. With the current murder toll running virtually on par with last year’s, such hope is yet to be realised.
The starker consequence of the policy, however, has been a hardening of the view that the police are entitled to kill without question if officers claim to feel threatened. It has not helped that Commissioner Griffith has, in almost every such case, given his officers blanket support without regard to even the most elementary requirement for due process.
Fortunately, there is technology to temper the risk of trigger-happy police officers.
According to Commissioner Griffith, the Police Service has finally taken possession of the first batch of 100 tasers which will be used to “neutralise anyone in a confrontation”. The opportunity for putting a taser to effective use was on Monday when Mr Stewart was running amok. It is now too late for him but hopefully not too late for the next mentally-ill person who becomes violent.