Pam Adams: A bullet hole in the system

Pam Adams

Not that I don't have sympathy for police officer Roberto Vasquez. I do.

How was he supposed to know James Payton was released from a hospital psychiatric unit last Friday?

How was Officer Vasquez supposed to know Payton had a productive meeting with caseworkers from Human Service Center Saturday to discuss intensive, continuing treatment?

The officer knows most about what happened on the third day, Sunday, when Payton allegedly brandished a knife in what had to be a low-budget, comedic attempt to rob a gas station. The clerk scared a knife-wielding Payton off with a baseball bat, then called police.

Peoria's police officers, it's safe to say, get more training in handling robberies and crisis situations than gas station clerks do.

Peoria's police officers, however, were not able to scare Payton off, calm Payton down, or convince him to drop the knife. Payton “advanced toward the officer,” according to the officer's account, and the officer shot him in the stomach.

Two days, just two days, after Payton's release from one hospital, apparently because a doctor deemed him not a danger to himself or others, he was back in another hospital, with a gunshot wound to the stomach, because a police officer deemed him a danger to others.

Not to second-guess one hospital's release of one man, not to question one officer's actions in one situation, but elected officials, police departments, mental health agencies and the community-at-large ought to be second-guessing themselves, up front and openly, about the most effective means to avoid tragic encounters between police officers and the mentally ill - including how well Peoria's systems and protocols work or don't work, how well officers are trained or not trained, and the best way to fix whatever's broken.

In a recent editorial series on just these issues, it was astonishing to read the doubts and technicalities that Peoria Police Chief Steve Settingsgaard offered for the department's apparent lack of interest in testing the Memphis police department's nationally-recognized model of officers specifically trained to recognize and deal with the mentally ill.

Training costs and shift distribution of trained officers pale in comparison to, say, lawsuits, or more importantly, loss of community trust.

“I'm just glad they didn't kill him,” says Payton's father, Fred Payton Sr.

Tuesday night, after Payton's second surgery in two days, his family gathered on the porch to raise their own questions and concerns.

Payton, 25, is a small man, about 5 feet, 7 inches tall, less than 150 pounds. He left the family home along NE Jefferson Sunday night, walking to a nearby grocery store. They surmise the grocery store was closed, so he headed for the gas station. He had plenty of money in his pocket, they say.

Payton's father remembers watching as police cars zoomed past the house and wondering if anybody got hurt. He became worried when his son hadn't returned home within a few hours. By Monday, Payton's older brother was calling police, searching for his missing brother.

“That's the hurting part,” Leroy Payton says. “No one called us, we had to call them.”

From what little information he's been able to gather, police were aware of Payton's identity after the shooting. But the lack of information provided from authorities has them breaking down every fact for clues, second-guessing every tidbit of news.

If the incident happened about 9 p.m., why didn't he get to the hospital until after midnight?

If he had enough wits about him to tell nurses he was schizophrenic, why wouldn't he have told police?

Why can't police show them the gas station's videotape?

Did he really have a knife? Could this have been a case of mistaken identity?

Payton's family can't believe he would try to rob a gas station. Reports of his past encounters with police, they say, make him seem like a violent man. He wasn't.

“If we called police when he was flipping out, it was because he was a danger to himself,” says another brother, Fred Jr. “We were never afraid.”

A bullet is still lodged in Payton's spine. And it's a symptom of the holes in the system.

Pam Adams is a columnist with the Journal Star.  Her e-mail address is padams@pjstar.com.