A report released last week by Kitsap County Prosecutor Russ Hauge clears a pair of Bremerton police officers of any wrongdoing for the use of deadly force in an Aug. 11 encounter with a mentally ill woman armed with two knives. The woman was shot four times by one of the officers, but suffered non-life-threatening wounds.
Hauge's report also serves as an indictment of sorts of the mental health system and the undue burden placed on police officers in routinely dealing with unstable individuals that are a threat to themselves, law enforcement and the general public.
According to Hauge's report, officers Frank Shaw and Floyd May responded to the Naval Avenue apartment of Ann Marie Sommermeyer and were granted entry by her boyfriend. Sommermeyer, who was long history of mental illness, was locked in the bathroom of the apartment, delusional and carrying on a conversation with herself.
"When Sommermeyer burst through the bathroom door wielding (two) butcher knives, Officer May back-pedaled a step, tripped and fell back on the bed," Hauge wrote. "Sommermeyer turned her attention to Officer Shaw who also tried to back up in the face of her charge. He called on her to stop and put down the knives, and drew his pistol. She continued her charge."
As officer Shaw retreated through the bedroom into the living area, he backed into a coffee table, tripped and fell down.
"As he fell he shot five times at the charging, armed subject," Hauge wrote. "The bullets struck her in four places. Although not life-threatening, her wounds caused her to stop. Officer Shaw used potentially deadly force in self defense. The only tool at his disposal that had the capability of stopping a mentally disturbed individual charging him with two large kitchen knives was his service pistol. His actions were completely justified."
The shooting was investigated by the newly formed Kitsap County Critical Incident Response Team with the Washington State Patrol as the lead agency.
"From the investigation I conclude that Officer Shaw’s use of deadly force was justified, professional, and, in the mental health care system we have created, inevitable," Hauge wrote.
The report also notes that since December of 2005, the Bremerton Police Department had been called on 17 times to deal with Sommermeyer. Hauge says that in all of their contacts, Bremerton police officers acted appropriately, professionally and with compassion.
"BPD officers responded when called on by her mental health caseworkers when she refused to seek treatment for a leg injury," Hauge wrote. "They responded when she made up a story about her baby being kidnapped, a baby that never existed. They responded when she threatened to stab her boyfriend — a threat he said she knew she made only because of her paranoid schizophrenia. When the caseworker could not get Sommermeyer to respond, the police were called. When her boyfriend could not deal with her illness, the police were called. When neighbors suffered from her outbursts, the police were called."
Hauge said that the only distinction between all of those contacts and the one on Aug. 11, is that in the prior contacts Sommermeyer's behavior did not demand a response with deadly force. Sommermeyer's boyfriend said she had been up for days carrying on conversations with imaginary people and had been making threats.
"He recognized he couldn’t handle the situation, and so he turned it over to those he knew would have to accept responsibility: the police," Hauge wrote.
At the conclusion of his report, Hauge makes it plain that police officers can find themselves in impossible situations where life-and-death decisions inevitably must be made.
"We leave our mentally ill citizens in the community until they create a threat of harm. We give our law enforcement officers the sole responsibility to deal with threats of harm. Most of these contacts resolve peacefully, and we do not credit our police officers for the professionalism and compassion it takes to resolve these contacts without the use of force. We have to recognize that if we obligate our police officers to contact and control the paranoid schizophrenic hearing voices that tell her to kill the demons, sometimes those contacts will result in the use of deadly force. I think we ask too much of them. We have to find a better way to deal with mental illness."