Guest Commentary: Mental Health Crisis Leads to Shooting Death of 88-Year-Old Robert Coleman by WS Police

by Maria Grijalva

The West Sacramento police have released a video compilation of body cameras worn by four police officers involved in the shooting death of 88-year-old Robert Coleman, which occurred Sept. 12 at around 3am at Merkley Ave and Poplar Ave. The incident started when the family called 911 to report that 88-year-old Robert Coleman was having a mental health crisis and had left home with a gun.

The video shows a police officer walking back to a patrol car after questioning an individual thought to be carrying the gun in question. Mr. Coleman had pulled up about 10ft behind the patrol car, leaving his lights on. The officer reaches the patrol car, sees Robert Coleman exiting his car. It’s dark, the car lights block the view, The officer greets Robert Coleman, turns on his flashlight as he cautiously walks toward Mr. Coleman. Lifetime West Sacramento resident, Robert Coleman, is seen exiting his car, unsteady, standing in front of his open door with a handgun in his right hand. At first glance it appears his hand and handgun are resting on top of the door’s window frame as if to balance himself.

The officer’s flashlight stops, centers on Robert Coleman’s hand, jumps back startled at the site of the gun. The officer takes cover behind the patrol car and fires three shots which appear to miss Mr. Coleman. The officer pauses for a couple of seconds, shouting to put the gun down, then resumes shooting. Meanwhile, three other officers rush over to provide backup and also they start shooting until Robert Coleman stops moving. The first officer shot his firearm 13 times. The other officers shot around 10 bullets. It is unclear if Robert Coleman’s revolver was fired or loaded. The video footage does not show Robert Coleman pointing his gun.

It is reasonable to assume the officer felt his life was in danger when he spotted the gun. It was 3am, the car lights were glaring. His gut reaction was to fire his own gun. Ask questions later. If the officer had not reacted, Robert Coleman would be alive today. If the officer had taken cover after spotting the gun, and asked questions, Robert Coleman would still be here today. Had the officer remembered that the 911 caller indicated there was a mental health crisis, he could have taken mental health emergency procedures. Instead, given the current social value of a Black man’s life in America, the police officers emptied their firearms.

Questions weren’t asked. De-escalation procedures weren’t implemented. The resident’s age or mental health played no factor. His revolver was a green light for officers to commence shooting without asking questions. The knee jerk reaction was to fire. After the first three shots were fired, officers did not wait for a reply. There was a pause after the first three shots that lasted a couple of seconds. Is there video footage of Robert Coleman seconds after the first three shots are fired by Officer #1? It appears Mr. Coleman did not raise his hands to surrender because audio indicates he was manipulating his revolver. Is there video footage of Mr. Coleman manipulating his revolver? Every second counts in these incidents because the goal should be to preserve life.

There is no doubt race played a role in the death of Robert Coleman. It is not enough to justify his death simply because he pulled up behind police officers with a revolver. Had he been White, his probabilities of being alive would increase significantly. In a 2019 Research article by Frank Edwards, School of Criminal Justice, Rutgers University, Risk of Being Killed by Police Use of Force in the U.S., by Age, Race-Ethinicity, and Sex, researchers found that “…Over the life course, about 1 in every 1,000 black men can expect to be killed by police… Black women and men and American Indian and Alaska Native women and men are significantly more likely than white women and men to be killed by police…”

Many would assume this was Suicide By Cop.  PERF (Police Executive Research Forum) notes that “Suicide by Cop incidents have been a concern in the policing profession for years, but PERF is unaware of any previous efforts to create training protocols on this topic.”  They believe, “Many SbC incidents can be resolved without using lethal force against the suicidal person, and without endangering officers or the public.”  They developed a Protocol and Training Guide which “is designed to bring the key elements of SbC training to all officers in departments of any size.”

Could it have gone differently? Is it possible Mr. Coleman could be alive today? Every second counts in these incidents. Perhaps if the officers had been in a city which is not being sued by the former Chief of Police for being ousted for attempting to introduce justice reform, things might have been different.. Perhaps if the officers had received de-escalation training, or attended free NAMI (National Alliance Mental Illness) courses for professionals, perhaps he would be alive today.

NAMI reports that almost half of the people who die at the hands of police have some kind of disability, as officers are often drawn into emergencies where urgent care may be more appropriate than lethal force. A NAMI course could have made the difference. The free Provider Education Program is a 5-week course that presents a penetrating, subjective view of family and consumer experiences with serious mental illness to line staff at public agencies who work directly with people experiencing severe and persistent mental illnesses. The course helps providers realize the hardships that families and consumers face and appreciate the courage and persistence it takes to live with and recover from mental illness.

What led Robert Coleman to pull up behind a patrol car carrying a gun? We will never know.

To view the video and see comments by Police Chief Rob Strange and Mayor Christopher Calbadon – here.

Maria Grijalva is a resident of West Sacramento, former candidate for City Council, and an activist.

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About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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