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Don't Dial 9-1-1

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Steve Hobart says he'll never forget the frantic moments after his 19-year-old son was shot. He'll never forget seeing a bloodied Aaron Hobart die in front of his eyes as he struggled to give him CPR. "We wanted Aaron to get help," Hobart said with watery eyes Tuesday. "We didn't want him to die."Stafford police have said Aaron attacked officer Jesus Estrada after police responded to a 911 call at his parents' Aspen Lane home last week. During the struggle, Estrada shot and killed Aaron, police said.But Aaron's father and a family attorney said Tuesday that the unarmed, mentally ill man was shot four times after Estrada pushed him away.His father said Aaron was in a psychiatric crisis. He was delusional and had refused to take his medication. His parents hoped police would either persuade him to take the pills or take him to the hospital.

(Moises Mendoza, Houston Chronicle)

Instead of persuading Aaron to take his pills or taking him to the hospital, the scared 23-year-old kid who showed up with a badge and a gun in response to the 9-1-1 call shot Aaron to death.

This is not about whether Aaron's shooting was justified. It doesn't matter. It isn't about whether Aaron's parents should have called the police. Dealing with crises is often a matter of making least-bad choices, and maybe Aaron's parents, looking back at it some day, will say, "we're sorry it turned out that way, but calling 9-1-1 was the least bad of our choices." But there is a definite caution here for the rest of us.

Here it is: stop calling the police to help your children, or to raise your children, or to discipline your children, or to mediate your disputes with your spouse. This is not what they are there for.

A police department is designed to deal with one sort of problem: crime. It deals with that sort of problem with a blunt instrument: the use (including threats) of deadly force. Aaron's family says that the police should have better training. This is certainly true, and it is good that there are cops with "crisis intervention training" and "mental health training" - the Law of Requisite Variety dictates that the more training in using things other than deadly force the cops have, the fewer mentally-ill children they will kill.

But cops are still guys with guns, accustomed to having deadly force as an option, and if you have a family dispute and call a guy with a gun, there is a non-zero chance that you or someone you love will wind up dead.

Whom the cops don't kill, they often arrest - they don't have a large menu of other options. I once had a client whose wife had called the police because he was depressed and she wanted him hospitalized. Instead, he got arrested. Criminal lawyers (on both sides) deal every day with children whose parents have turned to the police and the juvenile courts to provide discipline, and with wives who have called the police to get their husbands out of the house. In those situations, the people who called the police are the ones footing the bill to try to undo the damage done by the initial calls.

I've met many young men who have progressed from ADHD in childhood to bipolar disorder in their late teens and early 20s and thence, if untreated, to psychosis. I've also met many who were perfectly well-adjusted before a blow to the head, and ornery after. It's probably a good idea not just for those whose loved ones show signs of incipient mental disease, but for everyone who might have to deal with the mentally ill (which is to say, "everyone") to have crisis intervention and mental health training. The more options any of us have, the less likely it is that we'll make a bad situation worse.

Calling 9-1-1 is the nuclear option in family dynamics, little less of an escalation than wielding the gun yourself. Calling the cops on a family member can, like pulling the trigger, do instant, irreversible, and regrettable damage to the people you love. If there is a way for you to avoid it, do.

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