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A worried mom wanted the police to take her mentally ill son to the hospital. They shot him.

When the police get asked to handle mental health crises, the results can be tragic.

Illustration by Javier Zarracina/Vox

The day Keith Vidal died started out like an ordinary Sunday in early January. “We had coffee. Keith had hot chocolate,” his mother, Mary Wilsey, recalled.

Keith, who had turned 18 just a month earlier, stayed home while Mary and her husband, his stepfather, went to the grocery store. Keith was handsome, with thick, dark hair and a sweet face. He was small — 110 pounds, 5-​foot-6. He lived with his parents and two siblings in a house that his stepfather, a contractor, had built on a wooded lot.

Keith was a sweet kid who didn’t get into trouble, his mother said, even if he sometimes acted like a typical teenager. “He didn’t mow the lawn when you told him to,” she said. He was athletic and was especially into soccer, but his real passion was music. He played the xylophone, then acoustic and electric guitar until he discovered drums. On YouTube and Facebook, there are still videos of him playing, legs bouncing, arms raging through the air, hair flopping wildly in his face.

It was the summer of 2012, when Keith was 16, that his mother started worrying that he might be depressed. He had recently broken up with a girlfriend, and at first his mother figured it was just teen angst. But it kept getting worse. He stopped hanging out with his friends; then he didn’t want to leave the house. That fall, she got scared that he might try to hurt himself, so she had him hospitalized. Doctors diagnosed him with bipolar disorder and put him on medication.

It didn’t seem to help. He became paranoid; he was sure that other kids were bothering him and chasing him. His parents pulled him out of school. Instead, the school district sent teachers to the house a couple of times a week. He had been a boy who took care of himself, sometimes showering twice a day. Now his parents had to tell him repeatedly to shower, get dressed, change his clothes. He lost interest in food. He was hospitalized several times; a couple of times, his parents called the police for help with him.

His parents took him to see other doctors, and about a year later, a psychiatrist finally diagnosed him with schizophrenia. The psychiatrist started him on other medications, and for several months, it seemed like he was finally on track. But the Friday after Christmas, his parents became worried again. He seemed depressed, and they were afraid he might try to kill himself. His mother called his psychiatrist, who told her to bring Keith to the hospital.

The plan was to admit him for two or three days, just long enough to adjust his medication, and then send him home. But because Keith had passed that 18th birthday, getting him hospitalized was suddenly much more complicated.

Under the law, he was now an adult, and he could decide for himself whether he wanted to be hospitalized. If he didn’t want to be hospitalized, then his mother would have to petition for an involuntary commitment — unless the police or EMTs brought him in.

So on that Friday, she called the police. Boiling Spring Lakes, North Carolina, is a small coastal community near the border with South Carolina. Wilsey says the officer who responded knew Keith and his diagnosis. He was sympathetic. “Listen, Keith,” he reportedly said. “I have a son your age. He has depression problems.” The officer gave him a choice: agree to go to the hospital with his mom or get taken anyway, in a squad car or an ambulance. Keith agreed to go with his mother. At the hospital, a clinician asked Keith questions about how he was feeling.

His mother says she doesn’t think he ever saw a psychiatrist that day and is unsure of the qualifications of the person who examined Keith. She says nobody would listen when she tried to explain that Keith’s own psychiatrist had sent him for a medication adjustment. When Keith said he was neither suicidal nor homicidal — not a danger to himself or to others — the hospital said he was free to go.

His mother took him home, kept an eye on him over the weekend, and took him to see his psychiatrist the following Monday. The doctor increased Keith’s medication. That week, he seemed unhappy but okay.

By the following Sunday, it was clear that he wasn’t okay. When his parents got back from the grocery store that Sunday morning, “[Keith] thought I was somebody else,” Wilsey told me. He asked if she wanted to fight. “I was never afraid of Keith. The only thing I was afraid of was that he would try to hurt himself because he didn’t seem to be comprehending what I was talking about.” She called the psychiatrist again, who told her to call the police in order to make sure that he really would be hospitalized this time. Her husband called 911.

Two officers soon arrived, a Boiling Spring Lakes police officer and a Brunswick County sheriff’s deputy. An ambulance came too, but Wilsey said the cops told the EMTs to wait in the hallway while they cased the scene. Keith had pulled out of a kitchen drawer what his mother described as a small screwdriver, which he often used to tighten screws on various things around the house. One of the officers began talking to Keith, who was reluctant to put down the tool.

Although Keith was calm, the officer called for backup. Bryon Vassey, an officer from the neighboring Southport Police Department, showed up. Vassey is in his mid-​40s; he has broad shoulders, a thick neck, a ruddy face, and close-​cropped hair. He’d been on the Southport police force for 11 years. “I don’t have time for this shit,” Mary Wilsey heard him say as he came in. Two EMTs later testified that Vassey had announced, “I’m here to kick ass and take names.

The first two officers were still talking to Keith when Vassey walked in. He had barely entered the house, Wilsey said, when he yelled for the other officers to Tase the boy. Hearing the order, Keith turned and ran into the bathroom. When he came out, one of the officers Tased him. He fell to the ground, stunned, and “at that point,” Wilsey recalled, “we all rushed him.” There were two officers across his chest; his stepfather was at his side, trying to get the screwdriver. Wilsey was behind her husband. Seconds later, Vassey pulled out his gun and shot the boy in the chest. The EMTs rushed him to the local hospital, where he was declared dead.

There’s an epidemic of police shootings of people with mental illness

In 2015 and 2016 combined, nearly 500 people with mental illness were fatally shot by the police, according to calculations by the Washington Post. This means that for each of those years, one in four police shootings was of a person with mental illness. Other analyses have arrived at similar numbers. The Portland Press Herald found that nearly half the people shot by police in Maine between 2000 and 2011 had a mental illness.

A 2014 report from the San Francisco public radio affiliate KQED showed that almost 60 percent of people killed by police in San Francisco between 2005 and 2013 had a mental illness that “was a contributing factor in the incident.” Behind such statistics is a long list of individual tragedies, like that of Keith Vidal.

Part of the problem is that it generally falls to the police — rather than, say, EMTs — to respond to mental health crises. It’s a burden on municipal law enforcement that has increased as the availability of community health care has declined. In 2015, the New York City Police Department estimated that it responded to more than 400 mental health calls per day, more than 12,000 per month. The police department in Tucson, Arizona, said that it responded to more calls about mental illness than it did about burglaries or stolen cars.

These calls don’t just come from bystanders who want to report someone’s strange or dangerous behavior. Often, it’s someone’s family, like Mary Wilsey, who calls 911 for help: to keep somebody who is threatening suicide from killing himself. To ask for protection when a relative with mental illness is threatening. To calm a person down or to help the person get admitted to the hospital. Or just to get the person to the hospital.

Law enforcement is not health care, mental or otherwise. And to those who have not dealt with a family member who has a mental illness, having the police responding to a medical emergency sounds bizarre, especially if you replace mental illness with a physical one: Who would even think of calling the police to help deal with diabetes or an asthma attack? Yet families of people with mental illnesses come to learn that when they call 911, police will respond rather than EMTs.

There are various explanations for why police have ended up as first responders for mental health crises. It’s partly historical: In colonial Williamsburg, for example, it was up to sheriffs to deliver patients to the Eastern State Hospital. They were paid five pounds of tobacco for every mile they had to travel.

In some jurisdictions, these duties are also codified in the law. In Oklahoma, for instance, the police are responsible for transporting people with mental illness to the hospital for involuntary commitments, and the state mental health department budget includes money specifically to pay law enforcement for these transports. But the reliance on police has been reinforced in more subtle ways too.

As Keith Vidal’s parents knew, it’s much easier to have a person involuntarily committed when the police deliver him to the hospital. There’s a practical element too. From a medical perspective, mental health crises are less urgent than other health emergencies, such as a heart attack, where time is of the essence.

More disconcerting is the perception that people with mental illness are potentially so dangerous that only police are equipped for the job of getting them under control. More often than not, people with mental illness are not dangerous, but using the tools of law enforcement to deal with them helps perpetuate the notion that they are.

Officers aren’t trained to do this work, yet they are called on to do it often

For police, there is a disconnect between their training and the job they are asked to do. Most police training focuses on how to manage situations where people really are dangerous. In the context of dealing with the mentally ill, that classic law enforcement approach can quickly turn tragic.

Seth Stoughton, a former police officer who studies policing as a law professor at the University of South Carolina, says the first rule of law enforcement is that you “do whatever you need to do to go home at the end of your shift.” So training programs often emphasize the worst-​case scenarios.

In practice, that means teaching officers to be intimidating, to gain control of a situation completely and quickly. Officers are taught to make themselves look commanding and threatening by standing with their legs spread wide, chest out, and hands on weapons. Voices should be loud, commands shouted. If the suspect doesn’t obey or doesn’t obey quickly enough, the police are trained to move in closer and shout louder, until the suspect responds.

It’s meant to be scary, but for a person with mental illness, particularly one who with psychosis or paranoia, it can be downright terrifying. And for such a person, the approach can produce the opposite of the intended response, driving the person to lash out rather than to obey.

Officers also complain that superiors expect them to deal with emergency calls as quickly as possible in order to get back on the streets as quickly as possible. That discourages slow, thoughtful responses. Nonetheless, despite the amount of time officers spend dealing with people with mental illness, it’s clear that few academies offer much guidance. A 2004 survey of police departments in Pennsylvania found almost half of respondents felt unqualified to manage people with mental illness.

Keith Vidal’s mother reflects on the shooting

This disconnect between training and practice has existed for decades. Dealing with people with mental illness “involves none of the skills, acumen, and prowess that characterize the ideal image of a first-​rate officer,” wrote sociologist Egon Bittner in 1967. Every officer knows that “ … conveying a ‘mental case’ to the hospital will never take the place of catching [the bank robber] Willie Sutton.”

I met Keith Vidal’s mother, Mary Wilsey, in a town on the southern shore of Long Island. She grew up nearby, and since her son died, she’s been spending more and more time here. She’s on the short side of average, with straight honey-​blond hair; she wore a cable-​knit sweater with a thick turtleneck. She told me she’s been having trouble sleeping, that she struggles to get out of bed before late morning.

We sat in a booth where she ordered a salad and sandwich, which she mostly didn’t eat, and iced tea, which she drank. She used a ballpoint pen to draw a diagram for me on one of the brown paper napkins. It shows the hallway of the family’s house, the doorways, and the walls; it shows where the police officers were standing and the spot where her son was killed.

“You know what was disgusting?” Wilsey said. “We did that walk [from the end of the driveway to the hallway of the house], and [Vassey] wasn’t in there more than 20 seconds before Keith got shot. How do you assess a situation in 20 seconds? He came in and escalated the situation. You don’t take out your gun if you’re not going to use it.” She calculates it took just over a minute from the time Vassey pulled up at the house until her son was dead.

I exchanged several emails with Bryon Vassey’s defense attorney. He initially suggested that either he or Vassey might be willing to talk to me, but despite numerous follow‑up calls and emails, I never heard back from either of them.

Vassey was charged with voluntary manslaughter. The case went to trial in 2016, two years after Keith died. Under a law that had recently been enacted in the state, Vassey opted for a bench trial, where the judge, not a jury, decides the case. In it, Vassey testified that he had not known that Keith had a mental illness when he arrived on the scene. He said he was filling in on patrol for a fellow officer and chose to wear detective attire — a business suit — so he was not carrying his Taser. And he testified that he felt he had a duty to protect his fellow officer.

I feel horrible, sir,” he told the judge. “[I]t is the single hardest thing I’ve had to do in my life.” After the trial, which lasted nearly three weeks, the judge found Vassey not guilty.

Whatever the merits of the case, his acquittal was certainly far from uncommon. As with other officer-​involved shootings, police who shoot people with mental illness are rarely prosecuted and even more rarely convicted.

Still, such incidents have proven to be expensive for local municipalities. In 2017, Wilsey won a $1 million settlement in a civil case against Vassey, the police departments in both towns, and the county sheriff, after claiming, among other things, that the Southport Police Department failed to properly train or supervise its employees.

The money is cold comfort to families. Wilsey says her son was let down twice, first by the mental health care system and then by the criminal justice system. “They failed Keith in life,” she said, “and they failed him in death.”

The death of a child is unthinkable. Death at the hands of a police officer — one you called to get urgent help for that child — is even worse. “I wanted my son to get hospitalized and come home,” Wilsey said. Keith “did nothing wrong except be mentally ill.”

From the book Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness, by Alisa Roth. Copyright © 2018 by Alisa Roth. Reprinted by permission of Basic Books, New York, NY. All rights reserved. Roth is a former staff reporter for Marketplace and frequent contributor to various NPR programs. She is a Soros Justice Fellow; her work has also appeared in the New York Review of Books and the New York Times.

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