Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Shooting of a policeman by a man with severe mental illness, in Tampa

Recently, a man who, according to his family who I heard interviewed on the news, had a severe mental illness and was totally psychotic (eg, he heard voices, talked to them, and said things that made no sense), shot and killed a police officer in Tampa. The shooter, himself, was also a police officer in the Virgin Islands for several years.

When I heard the news, right after this happened, a woman was being interviewed who stated she was a cousin of the shooter, Humberto Delgado. From her descriptions of him and his behavior it was clear that he likely had Schizophrenia. He was also, according to this cousin, homeless because his uncled had kicked him out of his house as he wanted his dog to live with him. He had said he would rather live on the streets than give up his dog. This brought to mind my own history. I was homeless more than once for reasons that would make no sense to a person whose mind is working correctly. I never lived on the streets, but I did live in a car for a few weeks, which isn't much better.

Unlike Delgado, I had never been a police officer or a member of the military, and had no collection of guns or any experience ever holding or shooting or owning a gun in my life. However, deep into psychosis, I became obsessed with obtaining a gun. Despite believing I was Jesus and Anne Frank, that the world was soon to end in a Holocaust, and that people secretly eat humans, I was still able to present an appearance of a "normal" person, to those who did not talk with me in depth. I was able to walk into a gun store, buy a gun, and buy ammunition for it, that could kill me (which was the goal). I was able to drive to a shooting range, get some men there to show me how to shoot, and practice, telling them that I was only doing this for self-defense. I held this .357 Magnum in my hands, in front of people, and these people, at the shooting range, were not, apparently, alarmed. After all, I don't look much like Delgado. I'm female. I'm white. At the time, I was also very thin and relatively attractive. I dressed in decent clothes, and I showered at least somewhat regularly. I did not look like a "crazed maniac", or any other stereotypes of a person with a serious mental illness. Yet, I was completely psychotic.

On the day that I ended up in the hospital for the visit that resulted in my diagnosis with Schizophrenia, I was accosted by a group of policemen. I had a loaded gun a few yards away, in the trunk of my car. I never planned to shoot anyone but myself. In fact, the Glazer safety slug bullets I purchased were bought because I had learned that these would explode upon impact (with my body), and supposedly they wouldn't go through the wall of my apartment or any other place to hit anyone other than myself. I had planned on shooting myself in that apartment, so I wanted to be sure I would not injure or kill another person when I did the deed. The police who came when someone called 911 about me that day had heard I might have a gun, and did not know if I had it on me. They did not know what my history was, or why I would have purchased a gun. They had no way of knowing if I was going to hurt someone else, or myself. So they yelled at me, asking if I was Jennifer Robinson. Then they yelled at me to get up against the fence and put my hands up (or something to that effect), and the next thing I knew I was slammed up against the fence. I totally understand why they had to do that now, though I didn't know what was happening at the time. "What did I do??!" I asked. "I didn't do anything!"

Five years later, I could say that something different could have been done. But, really, they did what they had to do. And in that situation, it worked out okay. I complied with exactly what they told me to do. I got handcuffed, and put into the squad car. When they had searched my car and asked me whose gun that was, I said, "It's miine, which I legally purchased."

I didn't fight back. I also didn't have a gun on my body at the time that the police arrived. I didn't have any urges to hurt anyone else, and I didn't have any voices telling to hurt anyone else. Just myself. In short, I was really damned lucky.

It could have been so much different. And if the situation was infused with other social conditioning, if I had been a large, black man disheveled hair, and a gun in my hand, maybe, just maybe, I would not be here to write this. Because, in truth, people with Schizophrenia are a lot more likely to be the ones who end up dead in these situations, than the police are. I am not saying this to undermine the horrible tragedy of a police officer's death. Rather, I'm just pointing out a simple fact.

I feel terrible for both families in this situation: the family of the police officer, and the family of the mentally ill man now in jail for killing him. What I hate about this situation is the consequences it will have. Inevitably, after an incident like this, people with mental illnesses are portrayed with ugly stereotypes, broad generalizations, and insulting discriminatory words in the media. People call this man a monster, not just because of what he did, but because of the illness that he has. The serious nature of mental illness, and the funds needed to address it, are ignored in these articles and broadcasts. The fact that we need more Crisis Intervention Training in Florida and throughout the United States is ignored in these reports. The way that Crisis Intervention Training has proven to be successful in causing fewer such incidents to occur is also ignored. The "crazed maniac" is considered a monster who chose to be a monster, rather than a person whose actions were dictated by uncontrollable voices in his mind due to a condition he didn't cause or create.

So, I feel sorry for both of the victims here: the police officer, Corporal Mike Roberst, and the man who shot him, Humberto Delgado.

Not everyone would understand that statement. Probably most wouldn't. But that's how I feel, having lived in my own shoes.

Two former presidents of our NAMI chapter, Don and John, wrote a letter which was published in the St. Petersburg Times op/ed section about this issue. I hope you will take a moment to read it.

Edited, to add: Here's an older post on the topic of mental illness and crime.

4 comments:

The Medcalfs said...

I understand.
Janet

copingandhoping said...

Hey Jen,

Very good post today... It is always difficult to see individuals with mental illness suffering the effects of untreated symptoms. I also enjoyed your guest posting on the real mental site, you inspire me to be candid and up front with my thoughts and feelings however strange they might sound. Keep posting, I look forward to reading more...

-Joshua

Greta said...

I'm from Florida, too--Tampa! Thanks for following my blog, and I'll follow yours as well. I look forward to future posts!

Lady_Amanda said...

Hello,

I feel moved by what you wrote. I pray every morning for those labled as "criminally isane." I think our government focuses on pusihment much more than rehabilitation. It's really sad. And like you I could have used a gun on someone. My father has antique hunting riffles in the house so just as eaisly as this man it could've turned out badly for me. They are actually guns passed down from my Dad's grandfather and I am an only child with no cousins. I am seriously considering giving them to a museum when my Dad passes. But I think your right. Me as a white woman living in a nice home is less likely for the police to think, "OMG was is that woman going to do with those hunting riffles!"

Check out my blog at your own time,
LA

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