Pittsburgh police killed Nang Nguyen because he was waving a meat cleaver. Okay, he should not have been doing that, but did they really have to shoot him dead on the sidewalk? Consider the details of this story:
- He had a history of acting strangely toward the end of the month, when he would run out of medication. Why wasn’t it possible for him to get enough medication to last the whole month? He wasn’t someone who just hadn’t gotten around to finding himself adequate medical coverage–this was a person known to the police for his neighbor-frightening behavior, who had been hospitalized several times, who evidently was taking his medication when he could get it. Seeing as his unmedicated state was problematic, the police could’ve saved themselves a lot of calls by hooking him up with adequate medication.
- He and the officer had “a loud, tense confrontation that lasted at least several seconds”. Mr. Nguyen was “mumbling” while the police officer “screamed” at him, so evidently the loudness and tenseness were the officer’s fault. Why not approach him calmly, at least to start out? How did this go so wrong in seconds? I thought police were supposed to be trained to de-escalate conflicts.
- Mr. Nguyen was 5 feet 2 inches tall and weighed 110 pounds. Why was the officer so afraid of him?
- The officer pulled a handgun right away–not pepper spray or a taser to subdue the crazed citizen and get the cleaver away from him, but a deadly weapon. Again, this implies a problem in officer training.
- “They were perhaps five feet apart when the officer fired the fatal shot.” Why did the officer get so close to someone holding a weapon that can be used only at close range? The police chief said Mr. Nguyen had started to “aggressively approach the officer.” Sounds like the officer was aggressively approaching him, too, what with the screaming and the gun and all. (Another article says the officer was walking backward. Perhaps the proximity was Mr. Nguyen’s idea.)
- A non-fatal shot in the foot could have distracted him so that the police could disarm him. A police spokesman says that when an officer feels his life is in danger, he’s supposed to shoot at “the best target”. That makes sense…but this just doesn’t sound like a situation in which the officer had to make an immediate choice between killing or being killed. The eyewitnesses sound puzzled about that too.
- One officer came alone in response to a call about an armed psychopath. Why didn’t he have backup?
- Somehow, the corpse wound up in handcuffs. That obviously didn’t happen during the confrontation. And the corpse was left on the sidewalk for hours?! What the hell is going on here?
What particularly rattles me is the contrast between this and a very similar police confrontation I saw on some kind of “police around the world” show one of my friends was watching: An obviously psychotic man was waving a meat cleaver and “shouting incoherently” according to the subtitles. The police in this Southeast Asian country did not appear to be armed. They stood at a distance and, loudly but calmly, tried to convince the man to put down the cleaver and come with them: “We’ll help you get what you want. You don’t have to hurt anyone. It’s okay.” There were several cuts in the video, during which the crowd of gawkers changed, implying that they gave this strategy a good long try. Then they figured out a way to pick up a board between the two of them and come at the guy such that he dropped the cleaver and they pinned him to the ground. It can be done!
The other disturbing thing about knowing that my local police sometimes handle this type of situation so poorly is the realization that my three-year-old child and my Girl Scouts might well have witnessed a murder, had this approach been used in the scene we witnessed. We were waiting for a bus while police dealt with a naked, raving man across the street. They had put a police coat and handcuffs on him and were talking to him, apparently trying to persuade him to get into the car. (The girls asked what was going on, and I speculated that the man had gone swimming at the nearby indoor pool but forgotten to bring clothes to change into and thought he couldn’t go outside in a wet swimsuit in February! He must have something wrong with his brain. The police were trying to take him to get warm.) After about five minutes, the man began shouting more loudly and waving his cuffed arms around. The police tasered him. He fell into a thrashing, shrieking heap. That was bad enough for the kids to see! Ten-year-old Sarah turned away, saying, “Oh! I wish they wouldn’t! I wish they wouldn’t!” in a fierce, choked voice. Her mom and I explained that unfortunately this was the best thing the police could do under the circumstances, and it wouldn’t hurt the man in the long run. It’s horrifying to realize that, if a different officer had responded, we might have seen that man shot dead after only a few seconds of negotiation.
I don’t know whether Mr. Nguyen’s death is the fault of one officer (who was previously accused of threatening to kill a seven-year-old girl) using poor judgment, the fault of the police department for training its officers poorly and encouraging self-protective fear of “perps” over care for citizens, the fault of the health-care system and social services for not taking better care of Mr. Nguyen and the people he could harm, the fault of all of us for tolerating a society in which a screwed-up person can “disturb neighbors” over and over again with nothing being done until he threatens the wrong person and is murdered, or all of the above.
What I do know is that there are a lot of people to pray for:
- Nang Nguyen. He was screwed-up, but he was a human being whose life was lost in a moment of intense suffering. I pray that he has gone on to something better.
- Eric Tatusko, the police officer. In a moment of fear, he did something that may haunt him forever. I pray that he feels remorse and learns to do better in the future.
- Chong Won Kim, Mr. Nguyen’s landlord. He tried to help him and be a friend to him. He called for help and wound up watching his friend die. I pray that he finds peace.
- All the other neighbors and passersby who saw this terrible thing happen. I pray that, instead of succumbing to fear of what can happen on our streets, they find strength to work for a better, safer world.
- Mr. Nguyen’s family. Nobody knows how to contact them. Maybe they were distanced from him because of his mental illness, but they’ll be sad when they find out how his life ended. I pray for peace and healing for them.
- The helpers. I pray that they will find courage and compassion to deal with citizens in the best and safest ways. I pray that those who are twisted by fear or anger or power-madness or fatigue will find the strength to admit that it’s time for a change of career. I pray that all people who need help will get helpers who help them instead of killing them.