When I got home from work today, I noticed a helicopter flying over my neighborhood. That’s not out of the ordinary, so I didn’t think much of it. Not long after going into my house, Slappy Jones II sent me a screenshot in a text of a news story of a person who had just been shot and killed by the police only five blocks away from my house. It was right along the typical route I take when I go for a run.
My family and I turned on the local news on the television to see if we could figure out what was going on. The details slowly trickled in. From NBC Philadelphia:
A man who posted YouTube videos threatening law enforcement officials was shot and killed by police after he allegedly tried to run them over with his car in Delaware County Tuesday.
The man, identified by police as 52-year-old Joseph Anthony Pacini, had been charged Sunday with making terroristic threats, according to court records. He had also been charged in 2005 with making terroristic threats in Philadelphia, according to police.
Police were serving a warrant for Pacini’s arrest and tracked him down to a relative’s home in Clifton Heights late Tuesday afternoon, according to investigators. They then followed him as he drove away from the home into Drexel Hill.
He was eventually stopped by Clifton Heights, Upper Darby and Haverford Police officers at Garrett Road and Shadeland Avenue. After officers told him to get out of the car, Pacini allegedly put his car in reverse and accelerated, slamming into the vehicle of the Clifton Heights Police chief.
Pacini then allegedly tried to run over other officers with his vehicle. Five of the officers took out their weapons and opened fire, striking him several times. He was pronounced dead at the scene. No officers were hurt during the ordeal.
Here are his videos:
To me, it appears as though Pacini is severely mentally unstable. He was claiming to be the soul mate of Sara Bareilles. He claimed that a completely innocuous voicemail left by a police officer was definitive proof that the FBI wanted him dead.
So it’s reasonable to believe the police’s account of what happened before they shot him—that he was trying to run them over with his car. Were they justified in using lethal force? Were there lives actually in peril? I do not know the answers to those questions yet because the details of what happened haven’t been provided, but that’s not exactly the problem I want to talk about right now.
It seems to me that Joe Pacini was as good as dead the moment the police got the warrant for his arrest.
I’m not suggesting that the police officers going out to arrest him got together and said, “Hey, let’s fill this guy up with lead!” or anything like that. However, given Pacini’s obvious unstable mental condition and his statement that he would rather be killed than go back to prison, deadly violence was all but guaranteed if the police attempted to engage him. It is fortunate that no one else was hurt.
It was a bad situation, but it’s way too obvious that the police were not the people who should have gotten involved. The man needed help. Was there no one else who could have intervened in the situation? Yes, judging by the videos he probably did not have good relationships with his family, as he suggested that they worked for Satan. A family intervention would have likely ended poorly or at least not worked. Yet I have a hard time believing that there are no professionals out there who are trained reasonably well to deal with people like this.
Maybe he would have ended up dead regardless. I don’t know—I’d be lying if I said I knew for sure either way. But at least by not involving the people he feared were going to kill him (who were also the people he was willing to kill), he had a chance at living and getting some help. Mental illness is tough. It’s tough on the person suffering with it and it’s tough on his family and friends, coworkers, caretakers, and any other people he may encounter. Let me make it clear that I’m not trying to offer some silver bullet solution, but I am saying that there are wrong ways to go about handling a situation and that this was one of the wrong ways.
The police are often called in to deal with cases of mental illness. Being that they are not properly equipped to deal with such people, there’s a good chance that the person suffering from the condition ends up dead. It’s not that the police enjoy the killing—I’m sure it’s a traumatic experience for them as well—but it is their fault for not acknowledging their own limitations. That failure to understand your own limitations can be the difference between life and death.
Judging someone’s actions while only taking the heat of the moment into account may lead you to a much different conclusion than if you examined the entire situation. Did Pacini put the police in harm’s way? But should have the police even been the ones going after him?
I hope that as a society we take a long, hard look at how we confront those dealing with mental illnesses. It’s bad enough on its own; let’s not make it worse by confronting it so poorly. There’s no way to learn from people like Pacini if they are dead.