Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Public safety

Shooting of mentally ill Hernando woman was hardly commendable

Let's start by looking at how it ended.

Inga Marie Swanson, 42, lay dead on a Saturday morning last October.

The people who had shot and killed her, Hernando sheriff's Detective Rocky Howard and Tampa police Officer William Mechler, were sworn to protect people who need it, as Swanson surely did.

Though Swanson had never been diagnosed with a mental illness, she'd been wandering through her sparsely populated neighborhood just north of County Line Road for about an hour, talking incoherently. And she was naked, practically the definition of vulnerability.

Yes, she needed help, advocates for the mentally ill would tell you, as surely as the victim of a heart attack.

That she didn't get it means her death was even more than a tragedy; it was a failure.

And, so, the proper response is to look at what went wrong and see how to make it right.

We need to beef up our meager facilities for treating psychological disorders. We need to teach people to recognize signs of distress and how to get help if these start showing up in friends and family members. In strangers, too, considering that two people had seen Swanson naked and disoriented on the day she died — and let her walk away.

What's the best way to stop us from asking tough questions and correct what went wrong? Well, to make it seem as if it somehow went right.

And that's the message Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis sent on Wednesday, when he presented Howard and Mechler with his office's highest award, the Medal of Valor.

I'm not saying, not at all, that they were to blame for her death. And it seems that Howard, in particular, tried to do more for Swanson than anyone else did that day.

When Howard was told Swanson had shown up at his in-laws' house, he followed her and offered to help. When she walked away, Howard, who was off-duty, called for on-duty deputies.

Swanson returned with a gun before they arrived and said she wanted to take a 5-year-old boy who was sitting in a nearby truck.

Howard and Mechler shot her only after they had told her repeatedly to drop the weapon and she continued to walk toward them and point the gun.

That's where the heart attack comparison breaks down, Nienhuis would tell you. She was more than a victim; she was a threat, or at least an apparent one.

Right, which is why everyone agrees Howard and Mechler deserved to be cleared of wrongdoing. It was an excusable shooting.

But that doesn't mean it was commendable.

First of all, though Mechler and Howard couldn't have known this, Swanson wasn't in a position to kill or kidnap anyone.

The gun was old, broken and unloaded.

That's the smallest problem with giving them this award. It's supposed to be reserved for "exceptional cases where an employee risks his or her life in the performance of duty," and I'm not sure this qualifies.

Worse, overstating the threat to potential victims glosses over the tragic death of the actual victim, Swanson, which is the same thing Nienhuis did when he allowed Howard to return to work before he'd been cleared.

Worst of all, this award suggests Swanson needed to be killed when, really, what she needed was help.

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