Fatal SPD Shooting Highlights Debate About Responses to Armed Mental Health Crises

Seattle Police Officer Raises His Weapon Toward Derek Hayden on February 16, 2021.

Editor’s note: This article contains references to suicide and police violence.

By Paul Kiefer

At around 9:20 PM on February 16, Derek J. Hayden approached a Port of Seattle Police cruiser parked on Seattle’s waterfront. Holding a kitchen knife to his throat, Hayden told the pair of Port Police officers that he wanted to die.

The two Port Police officers called for backup. Within minutes, Seattle Police Department officers began searching for officers who could respond to the scene, specifically asking for any officers carrying a weapon known as a “40-millimeter” launcher that fires a large, foam-tipped projectile. Meanwhile, the Port Police officers followed Hayden on foot as he walked north and began cutting himself.

Though the Port Police officers carried their own 40-millimeter launcher—the department equips every squad car with the weapon—the officers later told SPD that their attempt to use the weapon to disarm Hayden “failed,” though neither the officers nor spokespeople for the Port Police provided additional details about the failure.

Derek Hayden’s death followed a familiar pattern: Police respond to a call about a person carrying a weapon during a mental health crisis, and after a short confrontation, the officers shoot and kill the person in crisis.

By about 9:23, a pair of SPD patrol officers arrived on the waterfront, stopping their car less than a half-block in front of Hayden. As the pair stepped out of their car, footage from one of the officers’ body-worn video cameras shows a group of officers who were already at the scene—including the Port Police officers, though the identities of the officers alongside them are unclear—following Hayden at a distance. Aside from the officers and Hayden, the sidewalk was empty—the nearest bystanders were inside a restaurant down the block.

Neither of the SPD officers were carrying a 40-millimeter launcher, though one carried an assault rifle—a weapon SPD officers often carry when responding to calls about an armed person in crisis. One of the SPD officers stood on the opposite side of the car, ordering Hayden to drop the knife. The officer with the assault rifle stepped out of the car on the side facing Hayden.

“You need to stop,” yelled the officer with the assault rifle. Hayden raised his arms and walked towards the officer, responding, “just do it!” The officer walked backwards, shouting at Hayden to drop to the ground. “Do it,” Hayden repeated. “Please kill me.” As Hayden came closer, the officer backed up slightly, then fired at least three rounds. Hayden collapsed in the street as other officers rushed towards him. He died at the scene.

Derek Hayden’s death followed a familiar pattern: Police respond to a call about a person carrying a weapon during a mental health crisis, and after a short confrontation, the officers shoot and kill the person in crisis. SPD officers shot and killed Terry Caver, a 57-year-old man suffering an apparent schizophrenic episode while carrying a knife in Lower Queen Anne on May 19, 2020.

Two months later, police in Bothell shot and killed 25-year-old Juan Rene Hummel during another apparent mental health crisis; like Caver and Hayden, Hummel was carrying a knife. At least one-third of all people killed by police in Washington since 2015 were experiencing some kind of mental health crisis at the time of their death.

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SPD, like police departments around the state, is gradually beginning to delegate some mental health crisis responses to mental health professionals.  But mental health crisis calls involving a person carrying a weapon are still a sticking point in the debate about which duties should be shifted police officers to mental health specialists. When SPD officers shot and killed Derek Hayden on February 16, mental health care advocates, police oversight leadership and state legislators were already leading efforts to shape a new approach to armed mental health crisis response.

Andrew Myerberg, the director of Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability—the civilian-led agency within SPD that conducts investigations into allegations of police misconduct—arrived on the waterfront later that night. Though the details of Hayden’s death were still hazy, Myerberg saw enough reasons for concern to launch an investigation into the shooting.

“The core of the investigation,” Myerberg said, “is whether the officers followed the department’s de-escalation policies.” Those policies emphasize that, when “safe and feasible,” officers should make an effort to buy time in tense situations by placing space and barriers between themselves and a person in crisis, and that officers should enter potentially volatile situations with some de-escalation plan in mind.

Myerberg noted that the tactics used by the other group of officers at the scene—following Hayden at a distance, for instance—may provide a vital point of comparison in the OPA’s investigation. “We’ll be asking whether the officers who stepped out of the car checked with the officers who were already on the scene about possible plans,” he said. However, Myerberg added that the Port Police officers’ unsuccessful attempts to disarm Hayden wouldn’t absolve the SPD officers from their responsibility to de-escalate when feasible. “Every officer involved has an obligation to try to de-escalate,” he said.

A key element of de-escalation during a mental health crisis, Myerberg said, are officers’ verbal commands. An officer shouting ‘drop the knife’ or ‘stop’ at a person in crisis is unlikely to lower the temperature of a tense situation, he said. “It depends on the exigency of the situation, but in a perfect world, you want to say, ‘we want to help you, we’re worried about you, we’re scared of the knife.'”

Sergeant Tony Lockhart, who coordinates crisis intervention training for law enforcement officers in King County, told PubliCola that an officer responding to a call about a person with a weapon shouldn’t be expected to immediately address the needs of the person in crisis. “If there’s unsafe behavior going on, we’re supposed to address the safety issue first,” he said. “I’m going to say something like, ‘stop’ or ‘drop the knife.’ Even if I don’t just want to yell, ‘drop the knife,’ if I see a knife, I’m probably going to say, ‘drop the knife’ because it’s what my brain wants to see so I can feel safe. If that’s not working, we could transition to something like, ‘just stay in that area.’ But we can only try to engage in dialogue when the scene is safe.”

SPD’s manual suggests that officers attempting to de-escalate potentially volatile situations should call for support from a colleague with crisis intervention certification, which requires completing a 40-hour course offered by county-level law enforcement training centers statewide. State law requires all law enforcement officers in Washington to complete an eight-hour version of the course, and roughly 60 percent of SPD’s officers have completed the 40-hour course. Because of the ongoing investigation into the shooting on February 16, SPD declined to disclose whether certified officers were present at the time of Hayden’s shooting.

Though the Federal Communications Commission established 988 as a nationwide mental health emergency hotline in 2020, the number is not active; Dhingra’s bill would direct the state to lay the groundwork for the number to go into service by July 2022

Myerberg doesn’t believe that the presence of officers with crisis intervention certification produces better outcomes when police respond to people carrying a weapon during a mental health crisis. “If you look at police shootings and other serious uses of force,” he said, “I don’t know if there is any qualitative difference between certified officers and others.” One prominent incident underscores Myerberg’s argument: Steven McNew, one of the two SPD officers who shot and killed 30-year-old Charleena Lyles in her Sand Point apartment in 2017, had crisis intervention certification at the time of the shooting.

But a bill before the state senate might begin to expand the role of mental health professionals in responding to all mental health crises, whether the person in crisis is armed or not. Senate Bill 5209, sponsored by Sen. Manka Dhingra (D-45), would direct the state to create the mental health crisis response infrastructure to support a new emergency phone number: 988. Though the Federal Communications Commission established 988 as a nationwide mental health emergency hotline in 2020, the number is not active; Dhingra’s bill would direct the state to lay the groundwork for the number to go into service by July 2022.

Among the services outlined in the bill are mobile crisis teams that would respond to 988 calls; while some cities and counties already have mental health crisis responders, the bill would expand their size and enhance their responsibilities.

Notably, Dhingra said, the mobile crisis responders would collaborate “on the back end” with law enforcement when preparing to respond to armed people experiencing mental health crises, and the law enforcement dispatched alongside the mental health crisis responders would only play a supporting role.

“Law enforcement officers are trained to walk into a situation and take control. Behavioral health professionals walk into a situation and immediately work on de-escalation,” she said. “We’re saying that if law enforcement responds with a behavioral health professional, take a step back.” Ensuring that law enforcement officers respect the increased responsibilities of their mental health professional counterparts, she said, will require changes in law enforcement culture.

Lockhart believes that it would be inappropriate to give mental health professionals a leadership role in responding to armed people in mental health crisis. “The vast majority of [mental health professionals] wouldn’t want to be up front talking to someone in a dire situation,” he said. “But they can provide us guidance, and they could help us relate better when we’re trying to talk to them. Law enforcement specialize in making the scene safe and stabilizing it, and [mental health professionals] are specialists in a different area.”

“Law enforcement is often interested in containing a situation, but that’s not always the first thing you need. My role is asking whether I’ve been in that person’s shoes.”—Peer counselor Adam Kravitz

SPD does have five on-staff mental health professionals who respond to some crisis calls, but—in line with the perspective of Lockhart and many other law enforcement officers—they are rarely called to respond to calls involving someone carrying a weapon. “I don’t know of any situation in which they would have mental health professionals do negotiations with a person who has a knife,” said Myerberg, “because I don’t know if there is anyone qualified to do that task, and I don’t know of any union that would let employees be exposed to that kind of risk.”

Dhingra’s bill may also open the door for a smaller, more specialized group of mental health professionals to take a leading role in crisis response teams. Dhingra told PubliCola that expanding the state’s crisis response workforce could involve developing a more robust training and certification process for “peer counselors”: people who have experienced mental health crises and, in some cases, police interactions and later receive training to support others in crisis.”

“They have a unique understanding of their peers’ frustrations, anger, stressors, concerns, and even reactions,” said Laura Van Tosh, a leading advocate for peer counseling in Washington.  In a crisis response context, she said, “the de-escalation of crisis can occur when a peer counselor immediately identifies with another peer.” Peer counselors have found roles in hospitals and homeless shelters across the state, but some see themselves as a potentially vital element of any mental health response team dispatch to future 988 calls.

One of the peer counselors currently working alongside law enforcement in Washington is Adam Kravitz, the manager of the Outsiders Inn shelter in Vancouver, Washington, recently joined a crisis response team in Clark County, responding to crisis calls alongside both law enforcement and non-peer mental health professionals.

“Law enforcement is often interested in containing a situation, but that’s not always the first thing you need,” said Kravitz. “My role is asking whether I’ve been in that person’s shoes. I’ve been suicidal, I’ve experienced psychosis, I’ve been arrested – I have broad experience, so I can often understand what someone’s experiencing.” Kravitz said that he often begins by sitting on the ground and explaining his role to the person in crisis; he then asks permission to ask questions.

Kravitz has yet to be sent to a crisis involving someone with a weapon; those, he said, are still the exclusive territory of armed law enforcement. But he believes that his experience as a peer is no less vital when those situations arise. “Would I feel unsafe? Yes. Would I do it anyway? Yes. That’s just me, but I would think we need to be prepared for situations like that.”

Whether or not Dhingra’s bill becomes law and expands the role of mental health professionals in crisis response, there is near-total agreement among both law enforcement and mental health professionals that improving responses to crises like that on February 16 doesn’t stop with the responders themselves. Producing better outcomes for people in crisis, armed or not, said Dhingra, is as dependent on the makeup of the response team as it is the availability of permanent supportive housing, stabilization centers and outpatient mental healthcare. “You need places to take people,” she said.

The bill, she added, would also direct the state to create a database to track the availability of beds in mental health care facilities and store patient information to ensure the crisis response system is well-connected to the care providers on the back end.

And Lockhart agrees that whatever changes it may take to improve responses to armed mental health crises, a robust mental healthcare system is equally as crucial. “If someone has held a knife to their neck and said they want to die, they’re probably going to go to the hospital,” said Lockhart. “But just taking someone to the hospital won’t fix the problem. Leaving someone in the hallway at Harborview [Medical Center] doesn’t help someone get stable.”