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Troubling questions over fatal shooting

We still don't know as much as we should about the events leading up to the shooting of Inga Marie Swanson, but we do know quite a bit about her.

She was very religious, often kind and sometimes funny, her friends and loved ones told the Times' Danny Valentine. She never was diagnosed with a mental illness, but clearly was more troubled than dangerous.

So why did Hernando County sheriff's Detective Rocky Howard and Tampa police Officer William Mechler — both off duty at the time — shoot and kill her on Oct. 20 in Spring Hill?

Well, Swanson, 42, carried an antique pistol. It wasn't loaded and didn't work very well, but presumably Howard and Mechler didn't know that.

Maybe she pointed it directly at them or said she wanted to kill them. Maybe, though her boyfriend said she used nothing stronger than marijuana, it was drugs that caused her to wander naked and disoriented through her neighborhood.

At any rate, it looks as if the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's investigation will find the killing justified — rule it a "good shoot," as some law enforcement folks say. Sheriff Al Nienhuis had already heard enough by Monday to let Howard return to duty.

Such decisions are allowed by office policy, but I don't think they should be. I don't think Nienhuis should clear deputies until he can tell the public why they're being cleared.

That's because we need public scrutiny in these cases. And that's because when an officer whose job is to protect residents ends up killing one of them — especially one of them, like Swanson, with no history of violence — it's a big deal.

And I'm not sure that we've treated these incidents that way in recent years. Too often, we shrug them off.

To some extent, statistics back up this impression. As the overall crime rate has drifted downward, the number of justified homicides committed by law enforcement officers "has gone in the opposite direction," said James Alan Fox, a well-known professor of criminology at Northeastern University in Boston.

A decade ago, it had dipped to about 300 per year, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Since 2007, the average has been just short of 400.

Why? Partly, Fox said, because shootings by law enforcement officers are necessarily investigated by other law enforcement officers and prosecutors.

"It's sort of like you're in a football game and the referee is the coach's brother-in-law," Fox said. "Almost every police shooting is (ruled) a justifiable shooting."

Then there's the increased respect the public has given law enforcement officers and firefighters since 9/11, which is a good thing until it stops us from questioning their actions. If we create an atmosphere where officers know they can get away with shooting, Fox said, they might not look quite as hard for alternatives.

Were there any in Swanson's case?

That's another question we can't answer for sure until the FDLE is done with its investigation. And maybe it's too early for David Welch, the president of the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, to say, as he has, that Swanson's death could have been prevented.

Here's what we do know:

Shortly before Swanson was shot, two men saw her wandering nude and talking incoherently about the Antichrist. One of them snapped a picture of her with his cell phone; neither of them called the Sheriff's Office.

Swanson came to a nearby house where Howard was meeting with friends. Somebody there called 911, and deputies were on their way, Nienhuis said, when she returned with the gun.

What should people do when confronted by an obviously disturbed person?

Most of all, realize it's a health crisis just as a heart attack is, Welch said. And assume that, with proper care, the sufferer can get better.

That's one of the messages he and other NAMI members will try to get across at a rally, scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday at Spring Hill Drive and Mariner Boulevard. It's what the group teaches in classes for law enforcement officers that are attended by lots of Pasco sheriff's deputies and very few from Hernando.

So call authorities, by all means, Welch said. Stay with the person, or, if they are walking as Swanson was, at least keep track of where they go. Offer any help you can, such as, in Swanson's case, a shirt or a blanket for covering.

And most of all, realize that when it comes to a person as troubled as Swanson, there's no such thing as a good shoot.

Troubling questions over fatal shooting 11/01/12 [Last modified: Thursday, November 1, 2012 8:33pm]
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