By John Micek
With the eyes of the nation on Minnesota with the twin dramas of the ongoing criminal trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin and the fatal police shooting of Daunte Wright, a Pennsylvania community also finds itself facing a reckoning over the use of deadly force by police.
Family and supporters of Christian Hall, an Asian-American teen fatally shot during a confrontation with the Pennsylvania State Police on an Interstate 80 overpass in the Poconos last December, say they're launching two initiatives that they hope will lead to better outcomes in mental health emergencies than the one that ended with Hall's death.
According to published reports, Hall, 19, was in crisis and had anonymously called 911 to report a potentially suicidal person. And "while he was carrying a realistic-looking pellet gun, dash-cam footage shows his hands raised with the weapon pointed up and away prior to being shot. The deadly use of force was ruled justified by the Monroe County District Attorney's office," the local Pocono Record reported.
Despite that official ruling, activists say questions about Hall's death still need to be answered. They include who gave the order to shoot and why. And why did a State Police statement say Hall "pointed his gun at troopers" when the video evidence disproves that?
Hall's family have said they're establishing a foundation in their late loved one's name aimed at fighting racism, working on adoptee mental health, reforming how mental health issues are handled by police, and reforming juvenile justice, the newspaper reported.
According to the Pocono Record, Hall was "adopted from China as a baby by Fe and Gareth Hall."
At that rally outside Philadelphia City Hall last weekend, Hall's cousin, Nicole Henriquez, called for release of "the unedited, full video," of the moments before police shot Hall.
Speakers at the rally also called for Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro to investigate the incident.
And while some of the officers who responded to that incident on the overpass last December had specialized mental health training, Madden told the Pocono Record that a mental health professional would have been better suited to try calm Hall before the situation tragically escalated.
On that broader question, the public agrees.
Two-thirds of likely voters in a recent poll by Data for Progress, a progressive think-tank, and The Appeal, a criminal justice news website, say they'd support reallocating funding that now goes to law enforcement agencies to create non-police first responders who would handle emergency calls dealing with mental health issues, substance abuse disorders, health and safety check-ins and people experiencing homelessness.
That support cuts across party lines, with 80 percent of Democrats, 52 percent of Republicans, and 60 percent of independent or third party voters saying they'd support such a change, The Appeal reported on April 8. Pollsters sampled the opinions of 1,429 likely voters nationally using web panel respondents, for an overall margin of error of 3 percent.
Across the country "momentum is building to prevent these tragedies by developing non-police programs that respond to mental health and substance use disorder crises as well as issues faced by unhoused people and more general safety checks," pollsters wrote in an accompanying memo.
Madden, the state lawmaker, told the Pocono Record that every police department should have access to a psychologist or psychiatrist.
"We can't afford that to ensure that people with mental illness don't get killed because they're thinking about ending their lives?" Madden told the newspaper
Hall's parents, meanwhile, are left to pick up the pieces from their son's death. The young man's jacket and video game controllers remain where he last left them, the newspaper reported.
"When bullets ended my son's life, my life ended too," Fe Hall, Hall's mother said, according to the Pocono Record. "We eat our meals on the couch, staring at the TV. We cannot sit at the kitchen table or the dining room because there is an empty chair."
As is the case with every tragedy, the Halls' pain is uniquely their own. But their story is all-too familiar for far too many American families. It's within the power of policymakers to break this cycle.
Copyright 2021 John L. Micek, distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.
An award-winning political journalist, John L. Micek is Editor-in-Chief of The Pennsylvania Capital-Star in Harrisburg, Pa. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek.