Photo depicting a stressed male-presenting individual silhouetted against a window, portraying struggles of mental health.

OPINION: Mental Health Crisis Should Not Be a Death Sentence

by Douglas Wagoner and Nia Franco


The Seattle Police Department has a history of violent responses to people in mental health crises that result in minimal to no discipline for the offending officer. Often, following these shooting deaths, the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) will recommend changes to policies and training. While these changes are necessary, they are meaningless if officers are not held accountable for violating policies and their training.

Terry Caver, as multiple callers reported, was experiencing a mental health crisis in May 2020. When officers located Mr. Caver, they did not attempt to create time and distance, as outlined in SPD policy, and escalated the situation by rushing in with police dogs and chasing Mr. Caver. The OPA investigation found that the canine handler violated SPD’s de-escalation policy and their actions directly contributed to Caver’s death. The officer received a 20-day suspension, which they are appealing through the arbitration process. 

Charleena Lyles, who called SPD to report a burglary, was shot seven times by SPD officers when they arrived on scene. The officers used deadly force on Lyles because a taser-trained officer did not have their taser — violating Department policy. Although an investigation acknowledged the failure of taser deployment, the officer was only given a two-day suspension.

Ryan Smith was shot and killed in his home by SPD officers in May 2019, after his girlfriend called 911 for help. Upon arrival, SPD officers broke down the door to their home, spotted Smith holding a knife at his side, ordered him to get on the ground, and opened fire, all in the span of six seconds. One officer involved in Smith’s death had previously been involved in three other officer-involved shootings. Ultimately, OPA found the shooting lawful and proper, resulting in no disciplinary action. 

Derek Hayden was killed by SPD officers in February 2021. Port officers called SPD for assistance, and shortly after arrival, police opened fire on Hayden, killing him at the scene. He posed no threat to anyone but himself. The investigation recently concluded and resulted in a one-day suspension for one of the involved SPD officers and a three-day suspension for the other.

The killing of community members in mental health crisis by SPD officers must end. While SPD has adjusted trainings and revised policies, there is far more work to be done. As an example, the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) advises that police departments should not immediately pull guns on people in crisis who have knives; this recommendation should be included in SPD’s practices. Expanding the use of civilian responders, such as Seattle’s Health One program, is another promising idea. But the heart of the matter is that officers must face real, tangible accountability for violating policies — especially when those violations involve killing civilians. Inaction, written reprimands, and short-term suspensions are inappropriate disciplinary responses, and fail community expectations when a community member is killed at the hands of the very officers who are meant to serve and protect. 

The Seattle Community Police Commission believes the lack of meaningful discipline is a fundamental barrier to ending officer misconduct. Until this barrier to discipline is addressed, we will continue to see officers responding in deadly ways to people experiencing mental health crises. Today, Interim Chief Diaz could make clear to officers that violations of use of force and de-escalation policies will be met with the strongest discipline, including termination. Our community deserves no less.


Editors’ Note: This article was updated on 06/28/2022 to remove reference to Mental Health Awareness Month in May.


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📸 Featured Image: Photo by sulit.photos/Shutterstock.com

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