Wednesday, Oct. 1
EDITORIAL: “Justifiable” shooting can’t justify response to mental illness
And I, for winking at your discords too,
Have lost a brace of kinsmen. All are punish'd.
– “Romeo and Juliet”
It is impossible to know, or to comprehend, what went on in the head of Christian Sierra.
Tortured by his own thoughts and chased by demons, the troubled 17-year-old jumped from the second floor of a townhouse and ran through a residential neighborhood in Purcellville carrying a knife. He had cut himself repeatedly around the head and neck, threatening to kill himself. Friends and neighbors tried to come to the aid of the fleeing youth and tried to wrest the knife away from him. Christian broke away and walked toward a police officer.
Drop the weapon, the police officer yelled. Christian kept coming. Drop the weapon, he repeated. Christian kept coming. When Christian came within 10 feet, raising the knife, the police officer fired a single shot into his chest. Christian kept coming. The officer fired three more shots into his chest from 5 feet. Christian fell to the ground at his feet. The young, troubled life of Christian Sierra was over.
Last week after a four-month investigation by Virginia State Police, the shooting was ruled justifiable, absolving the police officer of any wrongdoing. “There really wasn't time for this officer to do anything else,” said Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Plowman. “No amount of training in dealing with the mentally ill trumps the safety of an officer or of the public.”
Anticipating the decision, a Purcellville citizens group called for a special investigation into police procedures and training, as well as legislation in the commonwealth that would bring “peaceful change to help protect all of our citizens from police brutality especially those who may be mentally ill and or suicidal.”
“There really wasn’t time.” But there was. The time to help Christian Sierra came months, even years before he confronted a police officer with a knife.
The state police report reads like a Shakespeare tragedy. The ghosts that haunted Christian Sierra visited him for years. The Purcellville Police Department had been called to his home repeatedly since 2009. His parents, friends and community, as well as county courts and agencies, have long been aware of his problems. Yet Christian slipped through the cracks. He needed help and received neither the help nor the care he needed.
Plowman concluded that Christian’s history, while relevant, was not a factor in the legal analysis of the investigation.
Relevant, but not a factor. That’s where Christian’s story becomes Shakespearean. As in a Shakespeare play, many people came in and out of Christian’s life without exorcising his demons or keeping him safe. He needed help and didn’t get it.
The story is not a new one. A Times-Mirror series in 2012 by now Managing Editor Crystal Owens disclosed the shortcomings of the mental health system in Virginia and Loudoun County through the stories of real people struggling with mental illness. Virginia ranks 48th in the nation for funding for mental health. At the local level, agencies are strapped for funding and adequate personnel.
Consider that, in Christian Sierra’s case, friends called the county’s suicide hotline but were put on hold in the critical minutes before he was killed.
“I'm not sure words can describe someone's reaction when they've lost a child,” Plowman said after meeting with Christian’s family.
Those are words that our elected officials should heed now. Virginia needs better procedures to deal with citizens who suffer from mental illness. Law enforcement officials require better training to handle delicate, life-changing situations in our communities. The officer who shot Christian Sierra was a relatively new officer who had served in the military in Afghanistan and had not received the kind of training to adequately deal with a suicidal teenager acting threateningly.
Virginia also requires new legislation that addresses shortcomings in funding mental health programs and strengthening the agencies that help the victims of mental illness.
There are two definitions for the word “justify.” One is to show or prove to be right or reasonable. The other is to declare or make righteous in the sight of God. In Christian Sierra’s death, we have failed at one.
Christian Sierra is everyone’s child. As parents, and as citizens, we should demand more than a legal ruling about his death. There is no way to justify the sadness, the helplessness or utter senselessness of his death.
All are punish’d.
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