Don’t Dial 9-1-1


Steve Hobart says he’ll never forget the frantic moments after his 19-year-old son was shot. He’ll never forget seeing a bloodied Aaron Hobart die in front of his eyes as he struggled to give him CPR. “We wanted Aaron to get help,” Hobart said with watery eyes Tuesday. “We didn’t want him to die.”

Stafford police have said Aaron attacked officer Jesus Estrada after police responded to a 911 call at his parents’ Aspen Lane home last week. During the struggle, Estrada shot and killed Aaron, police said.

But Aaron’s father and a family attorney said Tuesday that the unarmed, mentally ill man was shot four times after Estrada pushed him away.

His father said Aaron was in a psychiatric crisis. He was delusional and had refused to take his medication. His parents hoped police would either persuade him to take the pills or take him to the hospital.

(Moises Mendoza, Houston Chronicle)

Instead of persuading Aaron to take his pills or taking him to the hospital, the scared 23-year-old kid who showed up with a badge and a gun in response to the 9-1-1 call shot Aaron to death.

This is not about whether Aaron’s shooting was justified. It doesn’t matter. It isn’t about whether Aaron’s parents should have called the police. Dealing with crises is often a matter of making least-bad choices, and maybe Aaron’s parents, looking back at it some day, will say, “we’re sorry it turned out that way, but calling 9-1-1 was the least bad of our choices.” But there is a definite caution here for the rest of us.

Here it is: stop calling the police to help your children, or to raise your children, or to discipline your children, or to mediate your disputes with your spouse. This is not what they are there for.

A police department is designed to deal with one sort of problem: crime. It deals with that sort of problem with a blunt instrument: the use (including threats) of deadly force. Aaron’s family says that the police should have better training. This is certainly true, and it is good that there are cops with “crisis intervention training” and “mental health training” — the Law of Requisite Variety dictates that the more training in using things other than deadly force the cops have, the fewer mentally-ill children they will kill.

But cops are still guys with guns, accustomed to having deadly force as an option, and if you have a family dispute and call a guy with a gun, there is a non-zero chance that you or someone you love will wind up dead.

Whom the cops don’t kill, they often arrest — they don’t have a large menu of other options. I once had a client whose wife had called the police because he was depressed and she wanted him hospitalized. Instead, he got arrested. Criminal lawyers (on both sides) deal every day with children whose parents have turned to the police and the juvenile courts to provide discipline, and with wives who have called the police to get their husbands out of the house. In those situations, the people who called the police are the ones footing the bill to try to undo the damage done by the initial calls.

I’ve met many young men who have progressed from ADHD in childhood to bipolar disorder in their late teens and early 20s and thence, if untreated, to psychosis. I’ve also met many who were perfectly well-adjusted before a blow to the head, and ornery after. It’s probably a good idea not just for those whose loved ones show signs of incipient mental disease, but for everyone who might have to deal with the mentally ill (which is to say, “everyone”) to have crisis intervention and mental health training. The more options any of us have, the less likely it is that we’ll make a bad situation worse.

Calling 9-1-1 is the nuclear option in family dynamics, little less of an escalation than wielding the gun yourself. Calling the cops on a family member can, like pulling the trigger, do instant, irreversible, and regrettable damage to the people you love. If there is a way for you to avoid it, do.

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0 responses to “Don’t Dial 9-1-1”

  1. How terrible for that family. But you’re right. Police have limited options with which to deal with problems. To rely on their interpersonal and conflict-resolution skills is a dangerous gamble, at best.

  2. Amen!!! Mark, you are spot-on with this one. It’s an unfortunate bi-product of the breakdown of the family and general lack of accountability/cohesiveness/community support that we now turn to the government to solve problems that should be dealt with either IN families or BY families. Officers with limited education and experience are now called on to deal with situations that would challenge the most seasoned mental health experts or family counselors. And, just as you say, they just don’t have that many tools with which to solve the problem other than arrest or force. Add into the mix the healthy and well honed instinct of self-preservation that most officers develop and you have the makings of disaster. It is sad to say, but in many situations such as these, calling 9-1-1 only makes the situation MORE dangerous. People need to seek proper intervention in these problems far earlier, before endangering lives by involving law enforcement. Well said.

    • Dear Tarian,
      I agree with your post. However, family accountability and responsibility are not always absent in cases where family members are dealing with a loved on with serious mental illness. In many cases families have tried working these issues out with all the resources they could muster. An underfunded and inefficient mental health system won’t help either. Many family members have tried to get help for a loved one for several months only to be told that they will have to wait another 6 weeks for an appointment with a psychiatrist.

      These families would love to have access to proper intervention much earlier. But that won’t help if a person with schizophrenia suffers from “anosognosia” – the inability to understand that they are ill and need treatment. Hopefully we can all work together to develop a workable solution to address this heartbraking issue. Working with organizations like NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness can help. More info can be obtained at http://www.nami.org

  3. Great post, Mark. May be one of your best. Objective. You talk about the very real tension from both sides of the situation–desperate families and cops doing the best they can. Nevertheless, these no-win situations seem to end too often in the death of a mentally ill person whom certainly didn’t “deserve to die”, but at the same time a cop called out to the scene (often times in response to a family’s desperate 9-1-1 plea) has little time to decide and react. Sometimes the cop is wrong. Sometimes the cop saves lives–including his own. Cops aren’t perfect, and I know that most would tell you that among their most dreaded calls is the domestic violence call. They never know if they’re walking into an ambush (see Atascosa County cops killed by mad husband) or whether they may end up sadly staring down at the wounded or dead body of some kid–who’s probably not a bad kid, but who’s been off his meds too long and then went ganzo on his mom. And, of course, said kid wasn’t real happy to see the cops arrive. They did what they thought had to be done to protect lives and themselves right that instant. Tough situations. Hard to second-guess the cops and hard not to grieve for the kid’s family. Good post and good comments from Tarian.

  4. Wow, you really have no clue what it’s like to be an officer facing a deranged individual who attacks you. And of the hundreds of thousands of successful calls for assistance over 9-1-1 in this country, you pick an anecdote to attack the entire system.

    Newsflash: anecdote does not equal data.

    While it is true, and a truism, that 9-1-1 is for emergency situations, it is equally true that you have more chance of being struck by lightning than of being in a situation that elevates into a use of force situation.

    Another truism is that these type of domestic calls are the frequent occasion of police officers being wounded or killed. I’m glad this officer was not the one wounded or killed.

    Bottom line: all such police shootings are regrettable; most such police shootings are entirely justified.

    • Ouch Tom, maybe a little sensitivity training here might do you some good. The post itself regards using 911 as a method to deal with situations that might not prescribe the police department.

      As for having no clue, well maybe not, but being from a military background I know that although in war one must evaluate the situation and make a decision. Shooting an unarmed man to death without first attempting non-lethal disarming techniques is a bit extreme.

      I do agree with you Mark, one of the reasons (I Believe) we are so over-criminalized is that for far too long people have become reliant on the constabulary to settle our differences, raise our kids, unlock our cars, and to defend us from minor altercations.

  5. I couldn’t agree more. I especially see this type of scenario play out in juvenile cases where the parent calls the police to teach a kid a lesson (when they find drugs, kid fights with the parent, etc.) and then, the parent comes running to me because they don’t want their kid to have a record, get put on probation, or placed in detention. I’ll ask the parents “Why didn’t you just handle this at home?” Their response is often along the lines of “Well, we wanted to scare him.” I feel like saying “Congrats, you scared him and now your kid has a record.”

  6. I thought police man were trained to be able to take down a person with out using a gun?? Why are we paying money for them to go through training if they can’t even apply to reality?? This is just an awful story.. Only police men can kill a human being shooting them four times in the chest and get away with it.. I’m fine if the person is armed and you are doing it purely to stay alive, but if they are not armed then there is no need for you to fire your weapon.. I would love to see this officer get locked up for murder.. I know that will not happen though because law enforcement is truly above the law and it makes me sick..

    Now as far as the parents go.. maybe they shouldn’t of called 911, but like they said they just wanted him to get help.. and 911 is for an emergency, and obviously that’s what they felt like this was and so therefore the police should do what they can to help them.. If anything at least don’t make it worse by killing there son right before there eyes!! Just put yourself in there situation and see how you feel about it..

  7. Andrew,
    In reality, police do not throw down their weapons and get into fistfights or martial arts contests with suspects. Reality is not “Walker Texas Ranger.” They “take down” suspects by brute force when nothing else works, and no sane police officer does that voluntarily without backup. Officers have no idea what drugs the suspect might be on, whether he has weapons, or what his intentions are. When an aggressive, combative person rushes a police officer, any reasonable officer is going to shoot. They are not required to stand there and get killed. Exactly how is an officer supposed to know whether a person is armed. These confrontations can and often do take place in a matter of seconds. Rush across your living room or your yard sometime and time how many seconds it takes you to travel that distance. Two, maybe 3? Do you want to bet your life on making all the correct decisions to save your life in that amount of time? Police officers are public servants, not sacrificial lambs. PS Andrew, its “their,” not “there.”

  8. Okay, enough of the “cop should have / should not have done differently” discussion here. It’s entirely beside the point, and none of us have enough information to make that call.

  9. It’s frustrating to watch as comments devolve into an entirely different area than the subject of the post. Go to a surgeon and his solution will be to cut. Go to a chiropractor and her solution will be spinal manipulation. Call a cop and his solution will be to arrest and shoot. Each does what he is trained and capable of doing. Cops are no holistic, nor are supposed to be. Mark’s point is that if you don’t want someone arrested or shot, don’t call 911. The cure you get may not be the one you want.

  10. Even if your kid does not get shot, he will get sucked into the system on a “Domestic Violence” charge when all you may have wanted was to calm the kid down, to scare him, or to teach him a lesson. And once he gets charged with domestic violence, look out, you will be in for a real lesson one how our system is different form 30 years ago. The police CANNOT just come out to help, and to work practical solutions.

    [Steve, I’ve changed the URL to which you linked because I’m not here for your marketing pleasure. In the future you can either a) put “Steve Graham” in the Name field, and link to your website; b) put your SEO terms in the Name field, and I’ll link to something you won’t like; or c) not comment at all. If you choose (a) or (b), please try harder not to write like you got your JD in Bangalore.]

  11. I agree with “don’t call the police,” but “don’t call 911” is wrong. 911 (and its European equivalent, 112) has always been advertised as giving access to a variety of emergency services, including fire fighters, paramedics, and even search-and-rescue — not just the police.

    In the case that prompted this blog post, the dispatcher should have known to send a medic, not a police officer, to the scene. I hope the event will prompt that city to retrain its dispatchers, or if they can’t afford to, then they should contract out their dispatch center to some major city that knows how to operate one safely. Many towns and small cities already follow this approach.

    • John, what they should do and what they do are different. As long as dispatchers send boys with guns to mental health crisis calls, I’ll stick by my advice: don’t call 911.

      • Mr. Bennett

        When you say “Boy”. Maybe if Officer Estrada was 17. Estrada is 23. You are right in saying non of you were there to make the call. Andrew who has military back ground says shooting an unarmed man is extreme. Should think back to his training about hand to hand combat. a person, even a combat veteran can be strangled or knocked unconscious. Speaking as a police officer you should not call 911 for mental problems.

        I can guarantee you when the investigation is released to the public you will see that even a “Trained mental health professional could not have handled Aaron” What happened that day was tragic for both the Hobart family and the Estrada family.

        That’s why his parents called the police because HIS doctor could not handle it.

        • Thanks for agreeing with me.

          You must have missed the part where I said, “This is not about whether Aaron’s shooting was justified. It doesn’t matter.” And the part where I said, “It isn’t about whether Aaron’s parents should have called the police.” (Did you read my post at all?)

          If the report ends up saying that even a trained mental health professional could not have handled Aaron, it’s a lie. The truth is that we’ll never know.

          His doctor couldn’t do anything because he wasn’t there. So he gave advice that led to Aaron’s death. My opinion? He should consider himself responsible.

  12. Mark, did you mean to say that Steve SHOULD try harder to write like he got his JD in Bangalore?

    Having been educated in India yourself, you must know that JDs from that country’s premier legal institution, the National Law School University of India in Bangalore, generally write the Queen’s english better than JDs from Gonzaga do.

  13. Most places where I’ve lived have a number to call for social services — 211. I agree with earlier posters who said “Don’t call 911 unless you want someone arrested or shot.” If you want “help” but don’t want someone arrested, try 211.

    Police have a policy called “escalation of force” — if you come at a cop with your fists, the cop has no interest in going fists vs. fists, he’s going to use some greater level of force to guarantee that he’s going to win. The cop needs to retain/regain control over the situation, and that means disabling any potential attacker. Baton, taser, gun — whatever it takes. Get a cop scared or mad or cornered, don’t be surprised if it’s the gun he reaches for first.

  14. Mr. Bennett and others that follow his blog may be misinformed regarding what families go through when they have a loved one with a serious mental illness. Hopefully this response can shed a little light on this very serious topic.

    The major mental illnessess (major depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia) are neuro-biologically based brain disorders. These are not illnesses caused by dysfunctional family dynamics.

    Like diabetes is a disorder of the pancreas, these major mental illnesses are diseases of the brain caused by chemical imbalances or structural changes in the brain. Unfortunately, there are not enough services to help people with mental illness in our communities. Current laws which rightfully protect the rights of people with mental illness also prohibit hospitals and doctors from providing treatment if the person has no insight into his/her disease and does not want treatment.

    Families are unable to get involuntary treatment for their loved ones unless their son or daughter has gotten sick enough to be a danger to themselves or others. Contrary to popular belief, there is no sound mechanism in our laws to get a person into involuntary treatment prior to that. It can be a very long and drawn out process. (Talk to families who have tried to get help through the courts.) Because of this, families who have loved ones who, by nature of their illness do not believe they are sick and are over 18, feel terrified and helpless. They are left to wait until the person attempts suicide or threatens them. By that time, one has no choice but to call the police. At that point, it is not the “least bad choice” as Mr. Bennett puts it – it is their only choice.

    Please don’t blame families for a situation over which they had no control. They are dealing with a medical emergency that often becomes a public safety issue because of our laws and lack of affordable and accessible community based services that can keep people fully engaged in their own treatment. There is very little funding earmarked to support mental health treatment in our communities.

    Police officers are NOT a bunch of bone-heads eager to use their guns and make arrests. Nothing could be further from the truth. They want to help people. Police officers will use lethal force when they percieve that their lives of the lives of others are in danger – no one should fault them for that.

    Thousands of police departments around the country are reaching out for intensive training in how to slow things down and communicate with people in psychiatric crisis so as not to escalate the situation. Police officers have found that crisis intervention training (CIT) actually keeps them safer. In 90 % of the cases this works and in other cases, they may still have to use lethal force – but at least they have more tools to try to prevent that when possible. Police who are CIT trained are also less likely to make an arrest, whenever appropriate- if the community mental health providers can respond quickly to get the person into treatment instead of jail.

    Let’s stop blaming the families of loved ones with serious mental illness. And don’t polarize our citizens from the police when families make that desperate call for help. Instead, police, families and communities need to take a proactive stance to see how they can work together to address this issue. It works in the thousands of communities where the Crisis Intervention Team programs are in operation. It is more than just training the police – it is a community-wide approach to problem solving. It also takes strong lobbying for better services for people with chronic mental health issues so they can finally be affforded with the same options to treatment like a person with chronic diabetes or a heart condition.

    It is time for all of us, the criminal justice system, public health system communities and families to work together. We all need to be part of the solution.

    • Yes, cops actually are eager to use their guns and make arrests. Not all of them, certainly, but enough of them that calling a cop for a family crisis intervention is a dangerous gamble no matter how much crisis intervention training he has. When your only tool is an arrest, every problem looks like a felony in progress.

      Like police apologist David, clearly you have an agenda that makes you want to misread what I’ve written (“It isn’t about whether Aaron’s parents should have called the police”). I’ll let that pass, and try to bring you back on topic with this question:

      Why should the rest of us (other than cops) who have to deal with the mentally ill not have crisis intervention training?

    • I can’t speak for Mr. Bennett, or any of his other readers, but for myself . . .

      The fact or the prospect of a parent or a child or a sibling or a cousin faced with a family member who is a danger to himself or to others (and I’ve been the latter three in just that situation, and I’m batting .333, which ain’t great) isn’t much improved if some well-meaning community organizer type (and I think both are really great things — I mean, who’s cheering for the ill-meaning community disorganizers, eh? Probably the same kind of folks who’ve read too many old comic books and think criminals would really call themselves The Injustice League or the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants…) has come up with a Clever Plan to Make Things Better But Hasn’t Yet Been Implemented Here.

      Sorry. Gotta make the call as the situation presents itself. Mark points to one risky thing to do — dialing 911 — and I could point to the time I made another, less conventional call, that demonstrably had other risks (my cousin Joshua Smotkin didn’t get the help he needed, and he hanged himself in his St. Paul on December 7, 1997).

      Police officers are NOT a bunch of bone-heads eager to use their guns and make arrests.

      You keep telling yourself that. Yes, they are. Not all of them, sure, and I’d guess not many of them, except in the sense of “too many.” But some sure as shit are, and if you’ve got the magic words to say to the nice folks at 911 that will save you from getting one of those triggerhappy boneheads sent out in response to your call, would you tell the rest of the world what the hell those magic words are? And never mind the not-particularly-triggerhappy, entirely well-meaning folks who just might not have what it takes in your particular incident, although (and I can speak with a little authority on this) the ballistics of the projectiles coming from the muzzles of their service weapons are identical to those of the boneheads’.

      But, hey, if you want to tell yourself that calling 911 is “the only choice,” you go ahead and do that. No skin off my nose.

      [Mark: this is kind of raw; I stand by every word, but if you decide to delete it for whatever reason, we’re cool, of course.]

  15. In response to Mark:
    Police and civilians alike could all benefit from training on mental illness. In fact there is a national organzaition that provides free training to families and the public. (I can send their URL to you if you are interested.) Learning about mental illness, its manifestation and treatment can help to de-stigmatize this little understood illness. Learning how to speak to someone in crisis and encouraging families to have a crisis plan is very helpful. Everyone can learn potentially preventive methods of de-escalation that will reduce the need to call the police.

    But in most states, when it comes to involuntary evaluations, the police may need to get involved. The police may be the only option people may have when a crisis erupts to write a request for emergency evaluation that will allow a person to be kept in a hospital up to 72 hours to determine if a committal is necessary. Even with a doctor – the doctor will often call the police.

    I am not saying that the police can and should be called any time someone is in crisis. However, there are times when it is necessary for the safety of the person and those around him or her. Unfortunately – that plan can backfire. What we have found is that training families on how to communicate with the police and giving police options for appropriate and safe responses can be a win-win for everyone.

    When a person is suicidal and does not want to go to the hospital and there are no other alternatives – who will you call? Too many people have died (people with mental illness, police officers, mothers and fathers) because no one wants to deal with this problem except blame each other. Its easier that trying to find a solution.

    I have talked to too many families and police officers who have been traumatized and suffer greatly because of the failure of our society to address this.

    • This is not about whether Aaron’s shooting was justified. It doesn’t matter. It isn’t about whether Aaron’s parents should have called the police. I should have said that. Oh, I did. So who’s blaming anyone?

  16. I did not mean to imply that you were doing the blaming. Society as a whole does the blaming. I know that you were not blaming families or police when you wrote “Calling 9-1-1 is the nuclear option in family dynamics, little less of an escalation than wielding the gun yourself. Calling the cops on a family member can, like pulling the trigger, do instant, irreversible, and regrettable damage to the people you love. If there is a way for you to avoid it, do.” Families who have lost a loved one after calling the police would accept that as true – and reading that statement will validate their own guilt – enabling them to blame themselves for the rest of their lives for doing so.

    In a perfect world families who have exhausted all other alternatives to help their child in psychiatric crisis would be able to make a call to an entity that would provide an immediate, helpful and compassionate response. But we do not live in a perfect world.

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