When Time Isn’t On Your Side (Update)

The law distinguishes two functions of a police officer, the first being the criminal function and the second being the public safety function.  This explains the “protect and serve” motto on the side of patrol cars, which isn’t an obligation but rather an aspiration.  If you have to sell the police to the public, it’s always good to have a motto.

When Boiling Spring Lake, North Carolina, police showed at the home of Mark Wilsey, it was for the second function. Wilsey’s son Keith Vidal was schizophrenic, and was having a psychotic episode.  That happens. Nobody asks to suffer from mental illness, and most parents try to love and care for their children nonetheless. But sometimes, things can get out of control and help is needed.

Help.  From WECT:

Wilsey said his family called the police to help with his schizophrenic son Keith Vidal who had a small screwdriver in his hand. Officers used a Taser on Vidal and then shot him, according to Wilsey.

Wilsey said officers came into their home after they called for backup help when Vidal was having a schizophrenic incident.

Wilsey said officers had his son down on the ground after the teen was tased a few times and an officer said, “we don’t have time for this.” That’s when Wilsey says the officer shot in between the officers holding the teen down, killing his son.

The story is sparse on details, to say the least. The local district attorney held a news conference, but refused to provide information, including the name of the shooter, relying on the “pending investigation” excuse.  But initial police reports suggest that Southport Police Detective Byron Vassey, who came as backup, was the only cop put on leave following the shooting.

The first unit on scene reported a confrontation in the hallway, but told Brunswick County Dispatchers several times that everything was OK. Unit 104 from Southport arrived on the scene at 12:48:41, fourteen minutes after the first officer had already been on scene. Seventy seconds later, Unit 104 radioed out that he had to fire shots at the subject in order to defend himself.

The “subject” was Keith, an 18-year-old, 90 lb., mentally ill young man, who apparently had a small screwdriver in his hand.  The First Rule of Policing, make it home for dinner, was in play.

There is no discussion of why police started with tasing, though it could fairly be assumed that Keith wouldn’t follow their commands to drop the screwdriver and do as he was told. Schizophrenics in the midst of psychotic episodes are notoriously bad at following commands.  There is no discussion of the tasing, which may reflect that the family took no issue with it or, more likely, that after the bullet killed their son, the tasing didn’t seem like much of an issue.

Had it just been a tasing to subdue a young schizophrenic man who was out of control, it would be one discussion. But obviously, the discussion changed when the trigger was pulled.

 “We don’t have time for this.”

There is no concession, as yet, that these were the words spoken by the shooter. It’s unlikely there ever will be. Instead, we have the routine excuse that the officer was threatened and had to defend himself from this lithe young man with a small screwdriver.  For those inclined to believe that the First Rule of Policing trumps all else, such as the function of saving lives rather than taking them if there is either a threat, no matter how negligible, or a failure to comply, no matter what the cause, then they will excuse the killing.

But there was no conceivable reason for this young man to die.  Indeed, it’s highly unlikely that there was a good reason for the officers to tase him or wrestle him to the ground, except because outwaiting his psychotic episode wasn’t deemed a good use of their time.  “We don’t have time for this.”

There is nothing to suggest that Keith attacked. He may have been poised to do harm, but until he does, it’s just a waiting game.  Cops hate a waiting game.

In anticipation of the “never call the cops, no matter what” response, it’s not that simple.  There are times that people need help, need the ability to exert control over someone who is out of it.  There are hundreds, if not thousands, of calls to 911 every day seeking medical and police assistance by people who need someone to help with a loved one.

To not call isn’t any more viable an option.  Some might call too soon, when they could better deal with things on their own but see the police as an easy way to deal with a problem.  But most don’t call until things are well beyond their control, and the need is real and significant. They only call when they have no other option.

And when the police arrive, problems are addressed without anyone being harmed, any story in the media, any call for investigation or prosecution.  The vast majority of public safety calls end without incident.  And then, rarely but enough so that it has made an indelible imprint on our consciousness, a cop puts a bullet in an 18-year-old boy.

This can’t happen.  And if the words,  “we don’t have time for this,” were spoken, and if the reason a mentally ill boy was killed was so that a police officer didn’t have to waste his precious public servant time to avoid killing someone, he murdered that boy.

Update: An additional detail from the Daily Mail:

According to accounts from family members,  the officer who had been on the scene for just over a minute, ordered the other two deputies to use their Taser guns to subdue the teen.

Owens said Vidal collapsed to the floor after being hit by the 50,000 volt stun gun prongs and was being restrained while with his step-father making a grab for the screwdriver.

That’s when the Southport detective shot Keith in the chest instead.  While this clears up some confusion, if accurate, it raises new and disturbing questions, such as why the local officers took command to use force from a detective outside his jurisdiction when they were under no threat of harm?


H/T Luke Rioux

9 thoughts on “When Time Isn’t On Your Side (Update)

  1. Jack

    From members and friends of the family and the local media down here, it seems that the local cops had Keith calming down and just another few minutes he would have put the electronics screwdriver down and gotten in the car. The Boiling Spring Lakes police department knew the family by name because they have had to help out (and had helped successfully) in the past with Keith and it is a tiny town where everybody knows everybody. I have friends who live just outside of Jacksonville right next to the town and it seems that most of the local outrage is being focused on Southport PD and Brunswick County Sheriffs Department for coming in from out of town and killing one of their children. There are huge questions for why a detective from Southport even showed up in the first place to a mental help call. Southport it is about 15 minutes down 87 from Boiling Spring Lakes.

    1. SHG Post author

      Thanks for the background. What a mess. This should prove interesting to find out why the Southport Det. responded at all, no less killed a kid known to the locals.

      1. Jack

        I’m sure I’ll find out a lot more in the next week or so and I really hope the media stays on top of this. They should since it is only a town of about 5,000 or so and nothing like this ever happens there – but you never know. Boiling Spring Lakes Board of Commissioners is having it’s regular meeting tonight and I can imagine that it is going to be packed. I would have made the drive out to hear the citizens forum if it were in a few days, but I suspect at least someone I know will attend. Maybe the next one.

        If I hear anything they don’t report that is more than rumor or speculation, I’ll be sure to send over an e-mail.

    2. Thomas

      Wanted to say thank you Jack for the post.

      [Ed. Note: Jack didn’t write the post, but whatever.]

  2. Barry Sheridan

    SHG, sadly you often feature incidents where the behaviour of certain serving members of US police forces is at best reckless. I continue to find it difficult to understand how these cases do not end up with the officers in question facing man-slaughter or even murder charges. Perhaps they do, but I feel if this were the case more restraint would be in evidence nationally.

    While my appreciation of the circumstances in this particular instance remains limited to what is above, I do recognise that even a 90 pound individual can exhibit remarkable strength, making them difficult to control physically. The fact that the police were called at all suggests the family was at wits end and needed help, that those called upon to provide that assistance first used a taser before shooting the man suggest a disregard for the motto under which they serve. A profoundly sad end to a life.

    1. SHG Post author

      A key feature for many of these terrible incidents is a lack of patience. The use of weapons isn’t justified because things are taking longer than a cop would prefer, and a cop’s time isn’t worth a person’s death.

  3. Jake DiMare

    I’m going to make a comment I suspect will garner me a severe lashing, but I can’t resist the urge to make my point: When society votes for a government which defunds appropriate care for the mentally ill while simultaneously militarizing police forces…This is what we get.

    I wish there was some way to make voters understand the connection between the leaders they choose and the outcomes we have.

  4. Barry Sheridan

    A contrast, but one that does little to ease the growing distance between different segments of society.

    [Ed. Note: Link deleted per rules.]

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