Questions about whether and when to call the cops were unavoidable. I was painfully aware of how badly encounters with cops could end, especially when people with mental-health issues were involved. But I also worried about failing to summon help that could stop a fight before it turned deadly or spare someone from being assaulted or save a person in crisis from an overdose. If a man was breaking beer bottles on the sidewalk or defecating on the curb in front of my house or shouting expletives for two hours straight, that didn’t meet my threshold––but I didn’t know where my neighbors had set their limit.
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What about a man shouting, “I’m going to rape you!,” or, “I’m going to kill you!”? I heard both without calling the cops, because, in context, the yeller didn’t seem to mean it. Another time, when a homeless woman kept screaming, “Call 911, she’s going to kill me!,” I obliged. The police came and deftly broke up a conflict with another homeless woman that didn’t seem dangerous in hindsight. Still, on many nights I wanted someone other than the cops to call. I searched for alternatives and found, to my surprise, that the L.A. County Department of Mental Health maintains a 1-800 number, 24/7, and can deploy “response teams,” sometimes alongside police.
On June 10, 2015, I published an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times urging Angelenos to consider that alternative to calling 911. Most people had never heard of it, and I don’t think my article changed that.
A few weeks later, on July 13, I was walking my dog back from the park when I sensed something amiss as I reached the corner of Rose and Bernard Avenue. Looking left, I saw an LAPD officer standing in the middle of my street, in front of Groundwork, with his gun drawn. It was pointed at a white man holding a box cutter. I watched the police officer shoot the man without fully realizing what was happening––as the man crumpled to the ground, I thought he had only been Tasered.
His name was Jason Davis. Earlier that day he’d entered the outdoor patio of Groundwork, where the staff is generally adept at handling disruptive people. According to the L.A. County District Attorney’s Office report, Davis looked disheveled and was drinking out of a bottle filled with dirty water blackened by cigarette butts. He was left alone until he began to vomit. When a manager asked if he was okay, he became verbally aggressive. Someone said he had a knife. The manager cleared the patio. Someone called 911. Davis refused to leave and told bystanders, “Film my death for YouTube. This is the day I’m going to die.” He told another employee, “You’re going to watch me die and it’s your fault.”
Two LAPD officers, Ryan Connell and Ivan Lombard-Jackson, responded to the call. According to the DA’s report, the officers found Davis in the patio area holding a box cutter with the blade exposed and ordered him to drop it while standing approximately 10-to-15 feet away. One officer held a Taser, the other a gun. After multiple commands to drop the blade, Davis reportedly stood up and yelled, “Today is the day that you motherfuckers are going to kill me!” Perhaps if the cops had simply left right then, no harm would have come to anyone, but they didn’t have that option. They are the people others call to handle problems that they could not or did not resolve.