Twenty five years ago on November 17, 1996, officers from the Ithaca Police Department responded to a noise complaint at an apartment on West State Street. It was not the first time they had responded to calls regarding that residence, but it would be their last. Debbie Stagg resided there. She was an individual who had a serious psychiatric illness and had been hospitalized many times in the previous twenty years. Debbie’s illness was so severe that ten years earlier in the midst of a psychotic break, she performed a cesarean on herself with a penknife, delivering a healthy baby and then sewed herself up.
That night in November, having stopped her medications weeks earlier, she again was psychotic. As the officers arrived, they tried a variety of approaches to calm her with the hope they would be able to enter her apartment and take her to the hospital for a mental health evaluation. Eventually, Investigator Mike Padula showed up to add his knowledge of her and assist in taking her into custody. After officers managed to enter the apartment, Debbie retreated into her bathroom. She had a long term fear of people breaking into her home and hurting her. Apparently this fear drove her to burst from her bathroom, knife in hand to inflict a mortal wound on Mike Padula. An officer at the scene then shot and killed Debbie.
In the weeks and months after, the actions of that evening and events leading up to it were reviewed multiple times. As the supervisor of the county mental health clinic that Debbie attended, I was deeply involved in this process. At the time, there was no New York State law to mandate treatment for certain individuals with serious psychiatric illness. There is now. Debbie had refused treatment and claimed to be taking medication. The criteria for “Danger to Self or Others,” forcing her to be taken into custody had not been met prior to that night. After that event, the Mental Health Department became strong advocates for a change in the law. When it was passed, we were one of the first in the state to use it.
The word most often used by officers at the scene was chaos. Imagine a small unkempt apartment filled with police officers while a screaming, cursing psychotic person overwhelms communication as various officers attempt to make contact or offer suggestions.
As the review process went on, headed by Deputy Chief Randy Haas, one idea appeared to emerge. The City and County needed a response that would have changed the outcome of November 17. The two lives lost were part of every discussion. A Special Weapons And Tactics (SWAT) unit and Critical Incident Negotiations Team (CINT) unit were planned. As Deputy Chief Haas and I wrote the original grants for funding these two additions to police/mental health services, some unique decisions were made. The SWAT team would be an interagency team including the Tompkins County Sheriff's Department, so it could serve the larger community. The CINT team would also be interagency. It not only included members of other departments such as the State Police and Cornell, but also mental health professionals as part of the negotiating team.
Myself, two other social workers, and a mental health nurse joined our law enforcement colleagues in the FBI basic and advanced hostage negotiation courses. We then began a heavy training schedule with the SWAT team to integrate our services in the most effective ways. I authored many of the training scenarios to include a variety of mental health and domestic abuse situations.
One very important element of the training was an understanding of how the process works. A simple view is described this way: SWAT is an arm, CINT is an arm, Incident Command is the head. Law enforcement is para-military. The assigned officer in Incident Command is in charge. No actions are taken without his or her say so. Traditionally that officer is senior to others on the scene.
Fully trained we began to respond to events. One of our first was a response to a domestic violence call that became a hostage taking. This became a common event. In this case, a domestic violence call came in, an officer responded, the man wouldn’t come out and he wouldn’t let his female partner leave. Incident Command had SWAT secure the scene. When we were certain no one was coming or going, the negotiations began, the incident was peacefully resolved.
Over a decade, I was involved in approximately fifty incidents. Some small and brief, some large and long. One lasted 23 hours. The common element in all of these incidents was a lack of chaos. We had achieved our goal. A calm, reasoned approach prevailed and nobody died.
Everyone knows the bad SWAT stories. There is no defense for bad and at times illegal behavior. When there is, it is a leadership problem. Good police departments have good leadership.
As the time comes to review law enforcement in our community, it may be easy for some to come to the conclusion that SWAT is an unnecessary and intimidating part of policing. The national stories pollute our views and hinder our judgement. SWAT is a tool to be used judiciously in the most serious incidents. Having it rechristened as the Crisis Response Team (CRT), might be a good beginning. Also understanding that the large vehicle used is not military grade, but essentially a fancy RV set up as a communications center for the three parts of an incident response.
The last year has found our safe little community in the midst of a minor epidemic of gun crime. Rolling gun fights have taken place in the City of Ithaca and Town of Lansing. Recently, the Village of Cayuga Heights was locked down due to an armed fugitive. There is an increasing likelihood that an armed person will be pinned down by the police in a car or building during the course of a crime. The life of that person is as important as others who may be at risk due to his actions. At that time, order rather than chaos needs to prevail. We currently have the means to achieve that. Let's not let that go.
Terence Garahan is a retired Clinical Social Worker and former Ithaca College Faculty Member. He is the author of When Truth Lies, A Journey With Schizophrenia.