When a call to the police for help turns deadly

In at least 178 cases over three years, law enforcement killed the individuals they were called to assist

SAN ANTONIO — Brendan Daniels tried to find help for his brother.

Damian Daniels was alone in his San Antonio home in the throes of a mental health crisis. The 30-year-old Black combat veteran had grown increasingly depressed after the recent deaths of his sister, father and uncle in quick succession. The stress and isolation of the pandemic had been wearing on him, too. But when he began sending paranoid, delusional text messages to his brother 800 miles away in Colorado, Brendan felt that it was time for someone to intervene.

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Brendan was wary of calling the police. It was August 2020, three months since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis ignited nationwide outrage over the issue of police violence against Black people. He decided to call the Red Cross, a safer option he thought, but the Red Cross then called 911 to initiate a welfare check.

Bexar County sheriff’s deputies visited Damian Daniels three times over the next 48 hours. The first two visits ended without incident. However, the third encounter escalated after deputies lunged at Daniels, who was standing in his doorway wearing a holstered, legally owned firearm.

The tussle ended when one of the officers, John Rodriguez, fired two shots into Daniels’s chest, killing him. Nearly two years later, his family is still searching for answers.

“This should have never happened,” Annette Watkins, Daniels’s mother, told The Washington Post. “We shouldn’t be living in a society where you call for help and be killed.”

A new investigation by The Post reveals at least 178 cases from 2019 to 2021 in which calls for help resulted in law enforcement officers shooting and killing the very people they were called on to assist. We used The Post’s nationwide database of fatal police shootings along with public reporting to identify cases in which the callers were concerned primarily for the individuals’ well-being and no imminent harm to others was reported.

Many of the calls alerted authorities to people in mental health crises, requested wellness checks or reported suicide threats. The calls came from the distressed individuals themselves or were made by worried family members, friends or neighbors. Police responses to calls for help are often routine, but, in the cases The Post identified, they turned deadly. Experts say that more needs to be done to protect those in crisis.

“If your family member is in pain, you should be able to pick up that phone and dial 911 and get help that is effective and safe,” said Christy Lopez, a policing expert at Georgetown Law School.

“We need to reject this idea that you can have a safe response or a law enforcement response,” she said. “We need to create a world in which you have a safe law enforcement response.”