Ongoing tension between Tulsa law enforcement agencies and the community they are charged with protecting took center stage this weekend after Tulsa County Sheriff deputies and a Tulsa Police Department officer shot and killed a knife-wielding, mentally ill man named Joshua Barre.
Sheriff deputies had attempted to serve a mental-health-evaluation court order on Barre three times since June 1. Having failed to do so, law enforcement encountered Barre again Friday when multiple community members called 9-1-1 to report a shirtless man walking down the street with two knives.
Apparently exhibiting some form of psychosis, Barre did not comply with law enforcement requests. According to a TPD release, officers followed Barre a half-dozen blocks, and a Taser was deployed. At an intersection, he entered a convenience store and was fatally shot through its glass door.
Protests near the scene erupted, and a community still reeling from the recent manslaughter acquittal of TPD officer Betty Shelby grieved again.
Results-based profession: Another death
While Barre’s knives and his entrance into a building containing bystanders will likely shield officers from any claimed criminal wrongdoing, the 29-year-old’s death further highlights apparent training deficiencies plaguing Tulsa law enforcement.
In a results-based profession, Tulsa law enforcement have twice killed troubled citizens over the past year instead of detaining and helping them. As area Rep. Monroe Nichols (D-Tulsa) told NonDoc last month, it would seem better training could and should be pursued to yield better results (i.e., fewer deadly shootings).
To that end, let’s examine three potential problems in the lethal case of Tulsa Law Enforcement v. Joshua Barre.
First, cops drop ball on pass from court
With limited resources and bureaucratic tendencies, the public mental health system can be extremely difficult to navigate. But someone concerned for Barre — or the potential threat he posed — had navigated the system admirably enough to obtain a court order saying law enforcement must transport the reportedly bipolar man to a state facility for evaluation and treatment.
Yet three separate visits to Barre’s residence to serve this mental health order proved unsuccessful. Twice, Sheriff’s deputies determined the man did not “pose an immediate threat to the public” despite his threats to kill officers with a hammer from inside his house.
For Barre to die days later on the basis that he posed an immediate threat to the public implies inherent error of action in retrospect.
That raises questions only law enforcement can answer honestly and effectively: What alternative methods could deputies have employed to serve Barre’s court order successfully? Did serving this order receive enough emphasis from deputies? Did deputies receive enough support from their superiors and the community when attempting to serve the order?
Second, law enforcement appear under-equipped
In both the Crutcher and Barre shootings, Tulsa law enforcement seem to have only two equipment options for apprehending delusional men: Tasers and guns.
While a Taser cannot truly be considered a non-lethal device, officers in neither incident were able to resolve the situation with successful use of a Taser. Of course, former Tulsa County Sheriff Department reserve deputy Robert Bates infamously killed a suspect by deploying his gun when he meant to use his Taser.
In other parts of the country and world, however, law enforcement agents rely on actual non-lethal disarmament tactics involving other types of police equipment: shields, poles, clasping arms and nets, among other items.
Often, these nonlethal encounters occur after officers triangulate the suspect and capture his attention in one direction. Sometimes, officers who surprise a suspect from behind use only their bare hands to isolate and separate the knife.
While Tulsa officers’ situation with Barre was obviously its own scenario with specific circumstances, law enforcement entities must admit that those involved either did not maximize their resources for knife-wielding suspects, or their protocol options appear to be: Talk, Taser, Gun.
If nothing else, officers failed to stop the man on his deranged walk, thus allowing him access to the convenience store in the first place.
Third, officers shoot into building despite obscured sight lines
If the reason to shoot Barre stemmed from the threat he posed to innocent civilians inside the convenience store, how will law enforcement investigators judge their officers’ decisions to shoot at a suspect through the door of a building containing bystanders?
Does that meet the training standards law enforcement agents are directed to follow in such a scenario?
Details have yet to be released on how many shots officers fired toward the suspect and the store, but at least one shot hit its target squarely. Still, pertinent questions remain: How many shots missed their target? How many shots passed completely through Barre? Were people in the store at a greater risk from Barre’s knives than they were from bullets being fired through a door covered in bars and cigarette ads?
Be honest and be better
All of these questions are not for us to answer in this editorial. Media can raise questions, but ultimately the public relies upon law enforcement agencies themselves to investigate police shootings, release reports and discuss the situations openly and honestly.
Unfortunately, the constant threat of lawsuits can limit what law enforcement bodies say about events like this. To admit that different or better training could save the lives of suspects — armed or not — would risk admitting civil liability.
As a result, the public has become used to the typical responses after a police shooting, and few of those responses discuss the concepts we have questioned above.
By avoiding honest conversations about law enforcement training, trust between officers and the public erodes, and more people in mental health crises end up dead with bullets in their chests.