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. Continue reading “Fatal SPD Shooting Highlights Debate About Responses to Armed Mental Health Crises”