The case of Paul Castaway is a sad one. Castaway, a Native American man living in Denver, Colorado, was in a time of crisis when he was gunned down by police last July. Castaway’s mother phoned police for help and was ultimately faced with her son’s death. A surveillance video shows Castaway running from police with a knife held at his own throat. He turns a corner, faces police and starts to walk towards an officer, still clutching the knife. Although there is no audio, you can see the officer shout commands to Castaway. As Castaway approaches, the officer takes several steps backward, still shouting commands. Finally the officer shoots Castaway and he falls to the ground. After being shot, the police roll him over and handcuff him. This case is sad not only because a man in need of mental health assistance ended up dead. This case is sad because it is another example of the public’s lack of understanding of police policy and why cops sometimes have to kill people.
It is always sad when a human life is taken. This case is no different. The issue I take with the public response to this shooting is lumping this case in with the other cases of clear police brutality that we have seen. This, whether we want to hear it or not, was a clear cut case of suicide by cop. A suicide by cop has four main features, all of which were demonstrated here. The characteristics are as follows: 1.The suicidal subject must demonstrate the intent to die. 2. The suicidal subject must possess a clear understanding of the finality of the act. 3. The suicidal subject must confront a law enforcement official to the degree that it compels that officer to act with deadly force. 4. The suicidal subject actually dies.
Did Castaway want to kill himself before police arrived? Maybe, but probably not. What he really needed was mental health assistance. This is something that the US greatly lacks, evident by the amount of gun violence we have in this country. The lack of mental health support systems, available at little or no cost to those who genuinely need them, is one of America’s many short comings. That being the case, many times, the responsibility of dealing with the mentally ill falls to police. Police are drastically under trained in dealing with the mentally ill and individuals in crisis. More often than not, the only tool police have at their disposal is a hammer, so everything has to look like a nail. That is the fundamental issue when it comes to police and the mentally ill.
In this particular case, the cops here followed police policy to the letter. If any issue is to be taken, it should be with police policy, not the actions taken by the officers on this day. Unfortunately, if a suicidal subject is armed, police have legal authority to shoot them. It is that simple. All too often we see examples of police arriving on scene and shooting without cause or without exploring other options of de-escalating the situation. In this case, the police did not appear to have that luxury. Let me first say that this could have been much worse for everyone. Castaway, armed with a knife and running into a populated mobile home community, could have been legally shot in the back as he fled from officers. That is a harsh reality of police policy. The overall goal is protection of the community. In this case, officers did not jump the gun and shoot without warning. From the video, the officer is seen backing up, continuing to give Castaway an opportunity to stop advancing and to drop the knife. He does neither. At this point, it is obvious that Castaway is another case of suicide by cop. Suicide by cop puts police between a rock and a hard place. They might know its a suicide by cop, but in the end, no cop will take the risk of getting killed when they are not sure of their subject’s intentions. And policy supports this. The police here were put in a bad situation and had to make split second decisions. Not even I can sit here and Monday morning quarterback them.
Many ask the question, why not just use a Taser? There had to be another way to subdue him without shooting him. Again this is a policy issue, not a decision to be made by an officer on scene. In fact, if an officer had used a Taser and something went wrong and an officer got hurt, they would be subject to disciplinary action. Policy would clearly state in this situation that deadly force would be the only force authorized. I always refer to the Use of Force Matrix, the chart that governs police use of force. In this case, all parameters were met to shoot.
There is no question we have a police use of force problem in this country. We also have a problem with misinformation. The general public needs to educate itself on the nuts and bolts of police force policy or else it will never understand why police kill people. Unfortunately these days, every police shooting makes the news, and there will always be those who want to vilify police. As a society, we need to be able to filter out the cries for justice where no cry should exist. The case of Paul Castaway is a sad one, and the problems here are fundamental; a lack of understanding and communication between police and the public and little to no support for the mentally ill. Only by tackling these problems will police and the community be able to move forward to find solutions.