National

The worst-case scenario

Converging in a tense section of Huntsville: A white police officer fresh from de-escalation training, a troubled black woman with a gun, and a crowd with cellphones ready to record
Huntsville Police Officer Thomas Parker stands for roll call outside the Alabama city's North Precinct headquarters. (Jessica Tezak for The Washington Post)

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — Thomas Parker was sitting in his police cruiser in a parking lot, sipping an energy drink and trying to wake up one hour into his 6 a.m. Sunday shift when the call came over his radio. “Unknown trouble on Academy Drive,” the dispatcher said.

“Dang it,” Parker said. Unknown trouble typically meant a mental health call, and he’d gotten one every day this week, including one the day before at the same address. The morning shift was supposed to be quiet, but lately it felt like social work duty, cleaning up personal messes instead of doing the job he had signed up for as a patrol officer with the Huntsville Police Department.

His dashboard laptop chimed as the details of the call came in: A woman was ranting and slamming doors at an apartment complex. She was scaring the neighbors. And then the dispatcher was on the radio again, asking if someone with mental health training could head to the scene. Parker had just completed this training, part of a department initiative to teach officers a kind of policing becoming the norm in other parts of the country.

“Hell, I’m gonna go over there,” he said. He started driving past the dollar stores, churches and long-stay motels of North Huntsville, the most racially segregated part of the city, and rolled over old bullet casings as he pulled in front of a two-story brick apartment on Academy Drive. A woman called to him from the balcony, “Poor thing, she’s just mental.”

The complex was laid out in a rectangle around a grassy courtyard, and when Parker rounded the corner, he saw a scene of mounting chaos. Dozens of people had come out of their apartments and were talking over each other to three officers, who were shouting at them to get back to their patios. Off in a corner, a tall woman with long braids in a red T-shirt with holes in it was pacing and yelling at a fourth officer, poking her finger in the air.

As usual in the North Precinct, the residents were black and the officers were white. In nine years on this beat, Parker had learned that even when residents here were bleeding in the street, they weren’t eager to talk, especially not to him, a 39-year-old, 6-foot-5 white man who could bench press more than 300 pounds and sported a shaved head and thick handlebar mustache. The one exception was mental health calls. Now, a group of young men approached Parker to tell him what was going on. “We didn’t even know what she was talking about and she pulled a gun on us and started waving it,” one said.

“The crazy one had the gun?” Parker asked. And a butcher knife, the man said. And now it was a different kind of call. Now it was a call with the potential to end like the ones documented in videos that had sparked protests across the country and led to efforts at police reform like the training Parker had just sat through. Already, several of the residents had cellphones raised toward him, recording.

Another officer pulled Parker aside. The woman had run back into her apartment, and was in there alone with her young children, and now it was the worst-case scenario of all: They’d lost visual contact with an apparently disturbed person who had a gun and a knife.

“So she had a gun and walked off?” Parker asked as they crossed the courtyard to the woman’s building. Her husband was waiting outside. “It’s been going like this for two weeks,” he said.

“But what about the gun?” Parker asked.

“It’s in the house. She’s in the house,” the husband said.

Parker tried to prepare the husband for what might come next. “All I’m getting at is that in her state, if she grabs the damn gun — ” he started, then stopped.

The husband told him that what she needed was to go to a mental health clinic.

“I get that,” Parker started again, slowing down each word. “But if there’s a gun in there, if there’s a damn gun in there, and we go in there, and she grabs the damn thing, then we’ve got problems.”

“I know,” the husband said, nodding. “I’m getting ready to take my kids out of here.” But it was too late for that. The next step needed to be a direct confrontation. And then, according to Huntsville police policy, commands for the woman to drop her weapon and the use of lethal force if she refused.

Parker and three other officers stepped into the building hallway in single file, hands near their weapons. The door to the woman’s ground floor apartment was ajar. He could hear a toddler crying and the woman talking to herself about devils. He kept his right hand hovering next to the grip of his gun. He looked down to make sure his body camera was on. Then he took a breath, pushed the door open, and stepped into the darkened apartment.

* * *

Community Relations Officer Johnny Hollingsworth outlines a point for Sgt. Ricky Stephens as part of a role-playing exercise during a de-escalation training session. (Jessica Tezak for The Washington Post)

Three days earlier, Parker had been in one of the first classes in a training program Huntsville was rolling out to prepare senior officers for a moment just like this. He’d shown up early and chosen a seat at the head of a windowless police academy classroom in front of nine other officers, all of whom looked like they had been sent to the principal’s office.

The teacher, Johnny Hollingsworth, wasn’t surprised by the gloomy faces. He had once fallen asleep during in-service trainings like these himself, but his outlook had been changed by 14 years as a crisis negotiator. “The theme of today’s class is how you listen. It ain’t about how you talk, it’s how you listen,” he said.

This class was Huntsville’s response to a problem that’s been growing across the country, with departments nationwide fielding more mental health calls as funding for psychiatric services has been slashed. These calls are among the most likely to end in violence, and that’s been especially true in Alabama, where police have fatally shot at least 26 mentally ill people since 2015, according to a Washington Post database of police shootings. Four of those shootings happened in Huntsville, including one that left an officer charged with murder, and they account for half of all fatal police shootings in the city.

Hoping to reduce these killings, police departments have invested millions of dollars in teaching officers techniques intended to safely de-escalate mental health calls. Such classes are at the heart of President Trump’s June executive order on police reform, which he said would “make sure that our police are well trained. Perfectly trained.”

It’s unclear how effective the training is. Researchers have found some reduction in arrests of mentally ill people before and after the training, but no difference in actual use-of-force incidents. Officers with the training have been credited with talking people out of suicide attempts. On the other hand, all four of the Minneapolis officers involved in the killing of George Floyd had received the training, and professional organizations including the American Psychiatric Association say the better way is to send specialists to mental health calls, with police limited to a backup role.

Expanding mental health services is expensive, though, so training remains the favored response, including in Huntsville, which spends $51 million a year on police and $800,000 on behavioral health programs. For the men slumped in the windowless classroom, it felt like the nationwide push for a new kind of cop had finally caught up with them. “We’ve known this crap’s been coming for years,” Parker said.

Hollingsworth, in silhouette, gives a presentation on police issues involving mentally ill people.
To simulate the added pressure a person with a mental illness experiences in a conflict, session participants tickle Sgt. Alex McCarver with a feather while yelling at him and beating on the table. (Jessica Tezak for The Washington Post)
LEFT: Hollingsworth, in silhouette, gives a presentation on police issues involving mentally ill people. RIGHT: To simulate the added pressure a person with a mental illness experiences in a conflict, session participants tickle Sgt. Alex McCarver with a feather while yelling at him and beating on the table. (Jessica Tezak for The Washington Post)

Hollingsworth began by explaining how to talk down a person in crisis: Use their first name, repeat their statements, stand in an open posture. He demonstrated by planting his feet wide and steepling his fingers over his chest, “a symbol that what you’re saying is coming from the heart,” he said. He asked the class to brainstorm what they might say to someone in a psychotic state. “Is there somewhere you can go, so I can go?” Parker volunteered, cracking up the other officers.

Hollingsworth said that if a mentally ill person tried to run, it might be safest to let them get away. A sergeant interrupted and said he would always give chase. “That’s why we became cops!” he said, banging his hand on the table.

A chaplain came in to talk about the possibility that the officers might be forced to kill a mentally ill person. He urged them not to become consumed with guilt. “You never shoot a man, they always choose to be shot,” the chaplain said.

And then it was time for lunch.

Parker headed to Applebee’s with another officer from his squad. They laughed at the idea of bringing active listening to the North Precinct. “The majority of the time, even the ones that tell the truth are still lying to you a little bit,” the other officer said.

Parker remembered a recent time he’d run into someone in full psychosis on shift. The man had been standing in his apartment holding a desk chair above his head and, when Parker walked in, had thrown it against the wall. “Do I have time to talk to this guy, or do I need to act?” Parker asked.

To illustrate his point, Parker pulled up a website he’d been checking daily since Floyd’s killing, which listed officers killed in the line of duty. Five more in the previous week. “Get more comfortable and lower your guard? Yeah right,” he said.

The last step of the two-day training was a role-playing scenario in which Parker had to help a woman who was pretending to talk to herself and pace in the middle of a street. Standing in front of the class, he asked her name and held his hand to his heart. But the woman just kept pacing. Eventually, he blocked her with his body, forcing her off the street and onto the sidewalk. Afterward, Hollingsworth praised the way he had kept calm.

“Your response has been one of the best ones,” Hollingsworth said as the class came to a close. “Way more successful than most people.”

* * *

Parker visits a homeless camp in Huntsville while on patrol. (Jessica Tezak for The Washington Post)

The following Saturday, Parker was back on duty. It was just past 6 a.m. when he climbed into his SUV cruiser, which was outfitted with a shotgun, an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle that hung next to his shoulder, and a set of brass knuckles in one of the cup holders. He was an officer well-trained in the use of force. He had joined the Marines after 9/11 and learned to fire guided rockets and assault weapons. The police department had sent him to 188 hours of firearms training and 544 hours of training in physical control tactics. And now he had 16 hours of mental health de-escalation training, too.

He checked out a domestic dispute, and then it was on to a morning of catching teenagers sleeping in stolen cars and making traffic stops, though he rarely wrote tickets, mindful of the many times he’d been pulled over in his street-racing days.

On one call, he let a trembling young woman with outstanding warrants smoke a cigar before he handcuffed her, intuiting that letting her relax for a few moments would make things easier for both of them. He thought he smelled alcohol on her breath and asked if she’d been partying. “It’s Juneteenth, no offense,” she said. “June what? Junieth?” he asked. It wasn’t until five hours later that another officer explained that Juneteenth was a holiday marking the end of slavery, and Parker wondered what the woman must have thought of him. “They didn’t teach me that in the training,” he said.

Parker grew up in Huntsville, not on the North side, but in the South, a mostly white area packed with scientists and engineers drawn by the city’s NASA and military aerospace programs, which are celebrated by two enormous rockets that can be seen from all over town. He’d never spent much time in the North, but when he got to the precinct in his training rotation, he had been transfixed by what he called the “nonstop action.”

Nine years later, that action had come to include residents regularly accusing him and his colleagues of racial bias. “They’ll say ‘Y’all shoot black people,’ ” Parker said. The department is overwhelmingly white — with three people of color among the 21 officers on the precinct’s morning shift — and has struggled with racial disparities in the use of force. Three of the four mentally ill people fatally shot by Huntsville police since 2015 were black, a pattern Police Chief Mark McMurray said the department is working to correct by meeting with experts about mental-health-care access for black residents, recruiting more diverse cadets, and investing in a new shooting simulator that “can vary the races so you’re not always being confronted by a standard black male.”

Soon it was noon, and the dispatcher was calling across the radio to ask if someone could do a wellness check on Academy Drive. “Another doggone call? Come on,” Parker said. But he radioed back that he’d be en route.

Parker used to get calls like this once or twice a month. Now, the department was logging more than 3,000 mental health calls a year, and Parker was lucky to go a day without catching one. Like many officers, he wished the city would send out people who had expertise in mental health.

“I’m not a social worker,” he said as he drove over. “Passion is a big thing in a career. If you don’t care about what you’re doing, you’re not going to be good at it.”

What Parker cared about was making felony arrests. He had a pile of awards for proactive policing shoved in the back of his SUV, and saw “bogus stuff” like social service calls as taking away time he could be spending stopping burglaries or assaults.

The Academy Drive call had all the signs of a bogus assignment. “Husband and wife arguing, that’s all it is,” Parker said as he headed toward the apartment with another officer. It was still 24 hours away from people holding up their phones to record him. The courtyard was empty except for a middle-aged man with a graying beard and a woman who was following him with a strange, stilted gait. “I’ve been calling you,” the man said. His name was Rhusshon Granville, and he said he needed the police to take his wife to the hospital.

“She’s not right, man,” Granville said.

“What’s she been diagnosed with?” Parker asked.

“Schizophrenic and bipolar,” Granville said, as the woman paced and talked about devils and threats people were making against her family. She seemed to come up for air for a moment when a toddler with neat braids emerged onto the back patio. She hurried the little girl into a neighbor’s apartment, then fell back into her racing monologue. “It’s been nonstop,” Granville said.

Parker considered what it would take to get her to the hospital. In Alabama, a person cannot be committed unless they pose an “immediate” danger, one of the strictest standards in the country. Huntsville’s psychiatric hospital is also chronically short on beds and, too often, Parker had put people in ambulances only to see them released before the end of his shift.

Still, he took a few steps toward the woman. “Ma’am, what’s going on?” he called. She responded that she didn’t want to talk to him. “Okay. All right,” Parker said, and as she kept mumbling, he went over the categories of mental health crises he had learned about in training.

The one that seemed to fit best was mania. Hollingsworth had said the way to approach a manic person was to talk to them in an empathetic way until they burned off some energy. Was this mania, though, or was it acting? The woman reminded Parker of the woman from his role-playing scenario, in that she, too, seemed to be pretending. After all, she hadn’t sounded manic in those moments when she was getting her daughter to the neighbor’s. He suspected that she was just trying to antagonize her husband. A domestic dispute after all.

Huntsville police policy requires officers to file a report whenever they encounter a person with “possible signs of mental illness.” But for Parker, this wasn’t a mental health call. So he headed back to the precinct for lunch, saying, “He wanted to make his problem my problem. But if you’re not breaking the law, why would I deal with your problem?”

People had been dropping off hot lunches at the station as a gesture of support since the protests against police brutality had begun. Today, the break room tables were stacked with burritos and sweet tea. “Hey, tell me she wasn’t putting on a show,” Parker called to the officer who had responded to the seven-minute call with him.

“Oh yeah, she just wanted attention,” the officer said.

As they sat down to eat, the dispatcher asked over the radio what had happened with the wellness check. The other officer radioed back that the situation had been dealt with. “The subjects didn’t need our help,” he said.

* * *

Rhusshon Granville and his wife, Ivy, hold their infant daughter. (Family Photo)

The next day, Sunday now, Parker was exhausted. He’d worked a second job breaking up fights at the local racetrack until midnight, then stopped on his way home to help another officer corral some escaped horses. Six in the morning had come too early. He was halfway through his energy drink when the call came to return to Academy Drive — not for a wellness check this time but for a report of “unknown trouble.” He had driven over there and rushed past the people recording on their phones. And now he was pushing into the darkened apartment toward the worst-case scenario of a disturbed woman, a knife and a gun.

“Ma’am?” he said.

The woman’s name was Ivy. Parker knew that. What he didn’t know, and what a social worker might have understood: Two years before, she had given birth to a stillborn son. Then she had gotten pregnant again and vowed to do all she could to keep the baby healthy, including staying off her medications so she could breastfeed. Earlier this year, she had wanted to wean the baby and get a new prescription, but that was when Alabama was shutting down in the initial days of the pandemic. When she hadn’t been able to get through to the psychiatric hospital, she had tried going to the emergency room, but the doctors there just referred her back to the same phone number that no one was answering, and not long after that, the neighbors began to see her in the courtyard talking to herself about devils.

“Get away from me,” Ivy shouted at Parker.

More of what Parker didn’t know as he advanced into the living room: Granville had called the day before because he was worried that, for the first time in their 13 years together, he couldn’t keep Ivy safe. She was growing suspicious of everyone and staying up all night documenting imagined threats to her children. She had not slept or changed out of her red T-shirt in days. That morning, she had run into the courtyard with a gun toward a group of young men she was convinced had been threatening her family. Neighbors had chased her back to her patio, but she had emerged again a few minutes later, this time with a butcher’s knife. And that’s when Granville had called 911 for the second time.

Now Ivy was standing by the couch, holding her toddler on her hip. “Where did the gun go?” Parker asked. It was hard to understand Ivy’s answer. “I had it to protect me because they’re on all sides of me,” she said.

As she talked, Parker and another officer, Jesse Fountain, scanned the apartment, hands near their weapons. There were deep scratch marks on the walls next to framed family photos. The surfaces were covered with blankets, empty boxes and stacks of toys, all of which looked to Parker like perfect places to hide a weapon.

He used Ivy’s first name. He repeated her statements back to her. He held his free hand near his heart. But in the hot apartment, she was only becoming more upset. She put down the toddler. “Get out of my house, devils!” she shouted. Parker imagined her reaching for the hidden gun. They needed to get her outside.

And so he started moving closer, using the position of his body to force Ivy toward the back door. Sweating in his bulletproof vest, he pointed to the patio. Fountain stepped through the door and said, “Ivy, come out here and talk to us.” Parker stepped outside, and then Ivy did, too, and then the toddler followed, carrying her sippy cup.

The other officers had pushed the neighbors to the far corners of the courtyard, where they continued yelling things that Parker couldn’t hear and recording him with their phones. Because of the gun, he could cite Ivy for menacing and have her committed at the hospital she had been calling without success since April. He relayed the plan to his sergeant. “She’s batshit crazy,” Parker said. The sergeant said an ambulance would be on its way.

It was starting to rain now. There was some far-off thunder. Ivy paced on the concrete patio, crying intermittently. Granville seemed in disbelief about what this was becoming.

“I was telling Mr. Parker yesterday. I said, ‘Take her.’ ” he said.

“There wasn’t no gun in play yesterday, Rhusshon,” Parker said.

Fountain asked Granville, “Where’s the gun?”

“I don’t know,” Granville said.

“She said you took it?” Parker asked.

“She makes up stories,” Granville said.

When the ambulance pulled up, Parker led the paramedics back to Ivy. Together, they tried to persuade her to go to the hospital. “I’m not going anywhere,” she said. “We need you to go to the hospital. Are you willing to go?” Fountain said. “No, I am not,” Ivy said. So now there was only one thing left to do: Take her by force.

“Here’s the deal. She’s not going to want to go to the hospital,” Parker told Granville. “She’s going to resist us. So therefore, we’re gonna have to lay hands on her.”

“She’s gonna fight,” Granville said.

Parker saw how the struggle would go, like it had gone for him so many times on these calls. Ivy getting bounced off the concrete when he tackled her. Her limbs twisting and bruising as he wrestled her into handcuffs. And then a forced walk out to the street.

But as he turned back toward Ivy, tensed for the fight, there was more thunder, loud and cracking and directly overhead, and it began to pour. The courtyard cleared instantly. Ivy broke off talking. They were all getting wet. Parker paused as Fountain urged Ivy once more to go to the hospital, and this time, her red T-shirt soaked, her wet hair hanging in her face, she dropped her hands to her sides. “Okay,” she said, looking at the ground.

Parker stood by the ambulance as paramedics strapped her onto a stretcher. He waited until the door closed, then he walked back toward his cruiser, and in the continuing downpour the call came to an end with no viral videos, no protests breaking out in Huntsville and then across the country, no news conferences, no murder charges, no lives ruined. Just a call that because of a rainstorm wound up working out, leaving Parker soaking wet and laughing uncontrollably as he said to Fountain, “Dude, I really envisioned her grabbing the gun. I was like ‘We’re gonna smoke this woman. It’s gonna happen.’ ” But it didn’t.

* * *

Parker, center, talks with his Huntsville colleagues outside the North Precinct headquarters. (Jessica Tezak for The Washington Post)

One thing Parker had learned in almost a decade of being a police officer: How to forget the details of the day’s calls by the time he walked through his front door. He’d done his best with Ivy. He’d acted the way he thought a cop thrown into a social service call should. But a few days later, he was still ruminating over what had really saved the situation on Academy Drive from ending in violence.

During a break at the precinct, he looked back at his body camera video from the first call, on Saturday. He watched Granville’s frustrated attempts to get his attention, and his own quick dismissal of Ivy. He imagined how others might criticize him if the video was made public, as it would have been had the second call ended in a shooting. “Then they’d turn around and say, ‘Weren’t you just out here the other day and you didn’t do anything?’ ”

It was still troubling him when he ran into an officer who had trained him as a rookie. “We just got lucky,” Parker explained.

The other officer understood immediately.

“They put things on us that should not be related to law enforcement, and then when you screw up because you’re not a specialist, you’re held accountable,” he told Parker.

“Exactly,” Parker said.

“I’m a meathead,” the officer said. “I feel like if they care enough to send us to those calls a few times a day, they should allocate money for someone that’s an expert.”

“That’s exactly how it should be,” Parker said. “One class is not enough.”

As they kept talking, another group of officers was reporting to the windowless classroom for their de-escalation training, learning about steepling their hands over their hearts, and hearing Hollingsworth recall how he’d been at a Black Lives Matter protest the other day and had used these techniques so effectively that young protesters who still had welts on their bodies from rubber bullets had thanked him and shaken his hand and said that what the department needed was more officers like him.

“Okay,” Parker said.

“All right,” the other officer said. “I got protecting and serving to do.”

Parker laughed, then resumed his routine of crisscrossing the North side in his cruiser, shotgun and AR-15 hanging next to his shoulder, brass knuckles in the cup holder, calls blurring together. “It wasn’t this bad before,” he said. “There’s a lot more involved now.” He was in a parking lot, taking a break, squinting against the early morning light, and then the dispatcher was on the radio. Unknown trouble on Mount Vernon Road. His dashboard laptop was chiming with the report: A woman had been walking around naked, talking nonsense and alarming the neighbors.

“Damn it,” he said, but he was already shifting his cruiser into drive.

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