Sunday, April 4, 2010

Victims on the Front Lines

The insurance industry and English legal system use the phrase "proximate cause" which has specific meanings relating to legal definitions but can more broadly be thought of as "An act or omission that naturally and directly produces a consequence. It is the superficial or obvious cause for an occurrence. Treating only the "symptoms," or the proximate special cause, may lead to some short-term improvements, but will not prevent the variation from recurring."

Recent events in Portland Oregon surrounding the fatal shooting of Jack Collins by Portland police officer Jason Walters have angered local residents to the point of sparking protests over violent encounters with police officers and even resulted in national media attention and visits from nationally known activists. Much of the discussion has centered upon the actual shooting and the use of deadly force.

While it is easy to view the events as simply a "threat to an officer resulting in the need for deadly force to protect the officer" or "senseless brutality of a person in crisis" depending on your point of view, the issues at work go well beyond the tragedies that both Mr. Collins and officer Walters found themselves entangled.

Mr. Collins, a long-suffering person afflicted with issues of mental illness and substance abuse found himself suffering not only from his disorders, but also from a lack of access to services and effective treatment for his conditions. Indeed, he sought treatment just days before his demise and sought not only help for himself but redemption from the demons that led him to commit a sexual crime decades ago. Mr. Collins was referred to a community mental health treatment provider strapped for resources and with little available access to treatment like so many others who find themselves upon their doorstep. Indeed when attempting to turn himself into the police and confess to past crimes, he was told that the statute of limitations had lapsed and there was nothing that could be done. With only the referral to the clinic as action, Mr. Collins simply disappeared from view only to turn up exiting a public bathroom, bloodied and facing officer Walters.

Officer Walters, a respected and long tenured officer, then found himself in a terrifying and dangerous situation, faced with a person armed with a knife in a difficult physical situation.

However you view the choices officer Walters made, and there are many circumstances to consider, there is no question that neither man deserved to be in the situation that led to the tragic result. It is hard to believe that any person who enters into police work visualizes themselves in a situation where they feel the need to take a life when they swore an oath to serve and protect. Shooting another human being, regardless of their station in life, is a terrible predicament. More often than not, officers have families and loved ones and the stress and resultant difficulties of grand jury investigations, suspensions and fallout from the scrutiny of his actions can exact a terrible toll on anyone in his position.

On the other hand, Mr. Collins neither deserved the loss of his life, or more importantly deserved to suffer the fate of his condition.

So often, there is a desire and need for people to take sides and determine the rightness or wrongness of the participants and far too often we see the unwitting participants as the ones with choices to be made. The point that is missed the the underlying cause, the proximate cause if you will, that set into motion the events that unfolded between the two men who were swept into a chain of events that altered the courses of their existence. There was no winner. Sadly, there were only two people who paid terrible prices for their being thrown into a situation that neither would have chosen had it been their choice to take another path.

We are left with extensive rhetoric about policies and procedures of police engagement, protests of police brutality and lack of understanding of what drove Mr. Collins to acquire a knife and do what he did.

Perhaps we would do better to examine our failures as a community and society. Unless we do, there will undoubtedly be more who suffer the same fate and circumstances as both Mr. Collins and Officer Walters. We can only hope that there is public scrutiny about the problems with access to mental health treatment as well as find better knowledge as to the causes and better treatments for those conditions. Put simply, if there were effective treatments for the challenges faced by Jack Collins, perhaps Jason Walters would not have been called upon to react to a crisis situation and by default be forever linked with the circumstances first suffered by Jack Collins. If not, the names will change and more people will suffer the same tragic fate.

Collins and Walters were truly victimes on the front lines of a struggle that neither wanted to or would have willfully joined. We could prevent others from being future victims. The question before us all is not who is right or wrong, but why we would choose to let others bear the burdens that they have already been asked to bear.

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