by James M. Doyle
BridgeTower Media Newswires
BOSTON, MA — After brandishing a fake gun near Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Juston Root, a 41-year-old man with a long history of mental illness, led police on a wild chase. Root was shot at least once outside the hospital. He lost control of his car during the pursuit, ran from the vehicle, and collapsed. He was shot 26 times by police. A BB gun was found on the ground where he lay.
The district attorney issued a finding that the police decision to shoot was “reasonable.” No criminal charges would be filed. A federal judge dismissed the Root family’s civil suit, holding that the police actions were reasonable, and that even if unreasonable, they would be sheltered by “qualified immunity.”
Those rulings might be right or they might be wrong. (Root’s family is appealing the dismissal of the civil suit.) Either way, as in every case of fatal police violence, they are bad places to stop.
Leave things where they stand and “reasonable” can seem to mean “inevitable.” In the aftermath of fatal encounters, leaders who are satisfied with “reasonable” will be understood in aggressively policed communities to mean “desirable.”
“Nothing to see here, move along,” degrades public safety. Even when there is no one to hang, there will be a lot to learn. (This is true of other criminal justice disasters, such as wrongful convictions and mistaken releases of dangerous prisoners, too.)
Our reflex after these tragedies is to hunt for a “bad apple” to punish. Sometimes the cop clearly had no choice and had to shoot to save his own life. Sometimes, as in the Root shooting, the conduct of the cops on the scene falls in some middle ground.
Sometimes, as in the George Floyd homicide, or in the savage beating of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, the answer is right there: evil apparently personified.
Targeting individuals for prosecution or civil judgment requires a simple performance review. If prevention is our goal, we need wide-focus event reviews. This is especially true in the zone exemplified by the Juston Root case and dozens of “suicide-by-cop” cases — the area on the Venn diagram where the mental health system and the law enforcement system overlap.
There is a growing recognition that these deaths can never be completely explained by the choices of a lone individual, that they are system crashes.
On the medical side, there are questions of diagnosis, medication, follow-up, and patient and family interaction. On the criminal side, even when we do see monsters, someone — many “someones” — hired, trained, equipped, acculturated, assigned and dispatched the monsters.
The conditions that faced the last cops in the chain of decisions were shaped by many actors and many pressures. Whether you whack or exonerate the proximate cop, those factors will confront the next cop and the next distraught schizophrenic who collide. Often, principals in these encounters have been “set up to fail” by standing system weaknesses.
That is why hospitals require “sentinel event” reviews aimed at learning, not at blaming, to access the lessons that patient safety tragedies can teach, and why the National Transportation Safety Board analyzes every plane crash to prevent others.
Criminal justice leaders have begun to mobilize the power of that practice and to take part in all-stakeholders, forward-looking, sentinel event reviews.
So, for example, in the wake of two in-custody deaths of drug-intoxicated men, Tucson mobilized a panel including police and fire personnel, medical experts and community members that was moderated by neutral outside academics. It generated dozens of recommendations that were then adopted.
Seattle marshalled a similar group to evaluate the responses to the disorders that followed the death of George Floyd.
These events exact a terrible price. Juston Root is dead; his family is traumatized. The cops who killed him won’t be prosecuted, but they will carry for the rest of their lives memories of the horrific seconds in which they killed a very sick man who, it turned out, was armed only with a BB gun.
After all of the questions of criminal and civil liability are resolved, the least we can do is hold ourselves — all of ourselves — “accountable for learning” from these tragedies. Even when the last one had to happen, maybe the next one doesn’t.
Recently, virtually on the anniversary of Juston Root’s death, police in Easton responded to a wellness call and were confronted by Marianne Griffiths, a 56-year-old woman with a long history of mental illness. Griffiths ran downstairs, saying she would shoot the police and herself. When she returned upstairs, she was carrying what police believed was a rifle. But her gun, too, was a BB gun.
She was shot and killed.
James Doyle is a veteran Boston defense lawyer and author, former head of the CPCS Public Defender Division, and recently a visiting fellow at the National Institute of Justice, where he developed its “Sentinel Event Initiative.”