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Deputy's death underscores danger cops face when confronting mental illness

Sheriff Tony Spurlock said officers deal with people in mental crises themselves because there aren’t enough avenues for getting them help


By Noelle Phillips
The Denver Post

DENVER — 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.

Sheriff's deputies remove a spotlight, Monday, Jan. 1, 2018, used to help investigators processing evidence at an apartment where Matthew Riehl fatally shot Douglas County Sheriff’s Deputy Zackari Parrish and wounded six others in the Denver suburb of Highlands Ranch, on Sunday. (AP Photo/Colleen Slevin)
Sheriff's deputies remove a spotlight, Monday, Jan. 1, 2018, used to help investigators processing evidence at an apartment where Matthew Riehl fatally shot Douglas County Sheriff’s Deputy Zackari Parrish and wounded six others in the Denver suburb of Highlands Ranch, on Sunday. (AP Photo/Colleen Slevin)

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.

“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.

While policing and mental health experts said they did not want to comment specifically about the Douglas County case, multiple people interviewed said officers responding to mental health calls listen to a person’s words, observe their mannerisms and quickly try to assess the situation.

“All of our training is basically decisionmaking,” said Sgt. John Wilton, who coordinates crisis intervention training at the Aurora Police Department. “What’s the safest outcome for the greatest number of people on this call?”

After the first call, Parrish and his colleagues determined no crime had been committed and Riehl’s behavior did not meet the requirements under Colorado state law to take him into custody for mental health treatment.

The second call

By the time Parrish, Davis and the other deputies returned to Riehl’s apartment at 5:17 a.m., it was clear his agitation had escalated.

Unpredictability is a hallmark of extreme mental illness, experts said.

Capt. Chris Juul, a district executive officer at the Aurora Police Department and former academy instructor, said people with mental instability have highs and lows. Drug use and alcohol also can change the dynamics.

“The way I dealt with him last time may not work next time,” Juul said.

Parrish and his colleagues had seen enough that night to determine that Riehl needed medical treatment.

“He’s having a manic episode,” Parrish said before telling two other deputies that they needed to “take him.”

While Parrish determined Riehl was having a manic episode, mental health professionals said it would be impossible to offer a diagnosis based on a video. Riehl’s family previously had told law enforcement in Wyoming that he suffered from bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

A person experiencing a manic episode can be irritable or agitated for several days. Their behavior is hyper and excitable. They have feelings of grandiosity and no need for sleep, said Debra Boeldt, a psychologist at the University of Colorado Anschutz’s National Mental Health Innovation Center.

“Their mind is just going all over the place and being easily distracted,” she said.

To diagnose a person with bipolar disorder, though, a psychologist would interview him during a period of stability, Boeldt said. She would want to know how long the episode lasted, the person’s medical history and the harm their behavior had caused them and their family and friends.

But police officers answering 911 calls in the middle of the night don’t have that amount of time to make an assessment.

“Those are enormous challenges for law enforcement,” Boeldt said. “Every time they walk into these scenarios, they don’t know what they’re going to be encountering.”

It is unclear whether Parrish was aware of Riehl’s recent history with Douglas County law enforcement. Information about Riehl had been shared during regular briefings, and Parrish would have had access to that information, Spurlock said. But the sheriff was uncertain about what Parrish knew.

Parrish and his fellow deputies were concerned about guns. Riehl made at least one reference to having them, and, on the second call, deputies positioned themselves outside the apartment to prepare for the possibility. They wore ballistic vests, and Davis carried a shield.

But they would not have known just how much firepower Riehl had. He had 11 functional guns in the apartment and used four — an M16, an M4, a shotgun and a Glock pistol — during the shootout, Spurlock said.

That’s the risk law enforcement officers take every day, multiple experts said.

“There’s so many variables in each one of these calls,” said Dekmar of the chief’s association. Those variables include the risk to the person who is sick, the officers involved and the general public, Wilton said.

Officers must consider potential scenarios where a person could harm himself and others. In Riehl’s case, would he have decided to take his guns to his lover’s workplace and start shooting because he was the focus of Riehl’s anger? Or would he have gone to sleep?

Before deputies tried to take Riehl into custody, they spent several minutes discussing a plan. Four deputies and a sergeant went inside. They used a key to enter but had to kick and push through a barricade of junk piled in the apartment.

Within less than a minute, Riehl blasted shots through his bedroom door. Parrish, Davis, Doyle and Deputy Jeff Pelle were shot. Riehl later would be killed by a SWAT unit sent to rescue Parrish.

The case will be investigated and studied by multiple agencies. But at the end of the day, Spurlock said he can’t guarantee his deputies won’t face a similar situation again, especially if mental illness continues to be ignored.

“They did every thing they were supposed to do,” Spurlock said. “They followed all of the common procedures to deal with a mental health patient and then it went violent.”

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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