Home / World News / Go in or walk away? Shooting that killed Douglas County deputy underscores danger officers face when confronting mental illness – The Denver Post

Go in or walk away? Shooting that killed Douglas County deputy underscores danger officers face when confronting mental illness – The Denver Post

In the hours before a fatal encounter with a man in the throes of a mental crisis, Douglas County Sheriff’s Deputy Zackari Parrish listened calmly as the man’s illogical ramblings fluctuated among screams, whispers and giggles.

The man bragged about his wealth, law degree and military service. He spoke about a quarrel with his lover and about robots and lasers. Parrish and his fellow deputies, having defused the situation, left without making an arrest or putting him on a mental health hold.

Two hours later, the man’s agitation had escalated. The morning would end with Parrish and the man dead. Four more officers and two civilians would be wounded by gunfire.

When deputies arrived at 5:17 a.m. on Dec. 31, Matthew Riehl was making loud noises and met Parrish and Deputy Taylor Davis on the landing outside his apartment. He refused to allow deputies inside or to come outside to talk to them.

“Go away. Goodnight. Go away!” Riehl yelled amid his rants from behind a door he slammed shut. “Happy New Year!”

“Boy, he’s manic,” Parrish told Davis as he determined they needed to take Riehl into custody on a mental health hold.

Last week, Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock released several hours of raw body-camera footage recorded as his deputies responded to calls at Riehl’s apartment at 3 a.m. and 5:17 a.m.

The footage provides a firsthand view of how a deputy tried to handle an increasingly combative, unpredictable and argumentative person whose mind was not functioning properly. Law enforcement officers often must make quick, high-pressure assessments on how much of a public-safety threat the person poses and whether to back away or take them into custody. These encounters happen hundreds of times a year, sometimes with wildly different outcomes.

Spurlock said he released the footage, in part, because there is a national crisis when it comes to mental health care, and law enforcement officers must deal with people in mental crises themselves because there aren’t enough treatment centers or other avenues for getting them help.

Editor’s note: This video was edited for brevity and graphic content.

“Law enforcement is doing its very best to try to deal with them during this ad hoc, emergency situation,” Spurlock said in an interview last week. “We’re doing whatever we can and that’s exactly what Deputy Parrish was trying to do. Calm him down and keep him as calm as we possibly could and get him to where we could get him to a hospital or some treatment facility.”

The video footage, which often is graphic, shows how deputies interacted with Riehl and his roommate, how they approached Riehl inside his apartment, the moment he opened fire and then how deputies fled from rounds fired through a bedroom door. When deputies realized Parrish had fallen after being struck, they made multiple attempts to rescue him, but Riehl was heavily armed and had a tactical advantage from his second-story bedroom.

Spurlock also said he wanted the public to see the “enormous firepower we were against” and the “number of times officers put their lives on the line to get Zack Parrish.”

Policing experts have warned for years that the United States’ unwillingness to fund mental health care services is taking a toll on law enforcement, said Louis Dekmar, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police and chief at the LaGrange Police Department in Georgia.

“The public policy has been, frankly, to ignore it,” Dekmar said. “As a result, the police are left to deal with it when individuals are in crisis.”

His organization conducted an analysis of 700 police shootings and found 36 percent were “suicide by cop.” Dekmar also referenced a 2015 Washington Post report on fatal police shootings that found a quarter of the 462 people killed during the first six months of that year were mentally ill.

“What is frustrating is before that fatal encounter officers have interacted with these individuals two, three, five times and sometimes have even taken them to a hospital for treatment,” Dekmar said. “It’s a significant officer-safety issue. It’s a community-safety issue. And it’s a safety issue for the people who are suffering.”

Indeed, Douglas County sheriff’s deputies had made repeated trips to visit Riehl during the weeks before the shooting. Those visits included the office’s community response team, which has mental health professionals working hand-in-hand with deputies. The sheriff’s office said the Riehl family had declined services.

The team has made more than 500 calls. None had resulted in gunfire until New Year’s Eve, Spurlock said.

“Unfortunately, in this case it went violent,” Spurlock said. “And then we switched gears. Once he went violent on us, it was too late to go back and try to help him. “

The first call

Riehl called 911 at 3 a.m. on Dec. 31 to report a domestic assault.

As Parrish quietly talked to the roommate inside, another deputy questioned Riehl — who was becoming increasingly louder — outside. Parrish asked the roommate why Riehl would be so upset.

It’s the first indication that Parrish had detected a mental health issue.

“Is he on anything?” Parrish asked. “Does he have any mental disabilities?”

The roommate answered that he wasn’t aware of anything. Just as Parrish was about to wrap up the call, Riehl, who was outside with another deputy, began shouting, “Assault! Assault! Assault! Rape! Rape!”

That deputy had his hand pressing on Riehl’s chest.

Parrish asked the roommate a second time if he knew whether Parrish had a mental illness diagnosis.

“It sounds like he might have some mental issues,” Parrish said. “A mental diagnosis. I don’t know if you can encourage him to have that checked out. But obviously not tonight.”

Throughout the encounter, Parrish asked multiple questions. He asked Riehl about his sexual relationship with his roommate, his employment, his education, his money situation. He listened as Riehl talked about the conflict with his roommate, people smoking marijuana outside and how he hit his roommate in the chest with a laser.

“The reason we ask these hard questions that are tough to answer is we want to make sure you’re OK,” Parrish said.

Parrish was using his training to figure out just where Riehl was mentally.

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