UPDATED: Victim of Police Shooting Struggled With Mental Illness
Investigation ongoing into Tuesday's shooting
By Jordan Smith,
8:00AM, Fri. Apr. 26, 2013
UPDATE: The post below is updated to include reaction from the Texas Civil Rights Project, which is asking for an independent inquiry into the shooting.
Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo said in a Wednesday afternoon press briefing that the man killed by officers Tuesday evening, April 23, outside his home in Southeast Austin had a history of "some serious challenges with mental health."
Indeed, Acevedo says he still believes the incident, during which four officers discharged their weapons, was an episode of so-called "suicide by cop."
Police received a call about a suicidal man in the 700 block of Valdez Street in Southeast Austin around 9 pm. When they arrived they found 54-year-old Herbert Babelay down a driveway standing near a shed; they asked him to come forward, Acevedo said, but he declined and retreated into the shed. Police then heard Babelay closing the barrel of a .410 bore shotgun. When Babelay aimed the shotgun at the officers, each of the four at the scene fired back; Babelay was declared deceased at the scene.
The four officers – Ricardo Cardano, who was sworn in as an officer just last month; Matthew Henion, a year-and-a-half veteran of the force; Donovan Hunter, whose been with APD just over a year; and Nicholas Moore, who celebrated his three year anniversary with the department on the day of the shooting – have been placed on administrative leave, standard procedure, while the case is under criminal and administrative review.
Acevedo said the department has learned from Babelay's family that he suffered with persistent mental health issues. Just days before the shooting they learned that he had stopped taking his medication; when off his meds, Acevedo said, they described him as "violent, irrational, and angry." The family "did the best they could," Acevedo said, searching Babelay's residence and taking control over several firearms they knew he had; but, they said there were three they did not locate – among those, it seems, was the .410.
The investigation into the shooting is still ongoing. Among the questions still open are whether, or to what extent, police had previous contact with Babelay (indeed, neighbors told police that the night before the shooting Babelay was outside around 4 am firing rounds into the air), and whether his weapons were purchased legally. Also expected to be part of the inquiry is the decision by three officers to arm themselves with, and ultimately use, their assault-type rifles to fire multiple rounds at Babelay. Indeed, neighbors reported finding fired rounds in nearby houses. Three of the officers used their M&P 15 rifles (Smith & Wesson's version of the AR-15), while the fourth – the newest officer – armed himself with his .40-caliber pistol. "We're not going to wait" to look at whether firearm protocol is proper until "after a baby down the street" is killed, Acevedo said.
Importantly, Acevedo said, the incident again raises questions about how we monitor who has access to firearms. "Firearms in the hands of criminals or in the hands of the mentally ill are an absolutely horrible combination," he said. Still, Acevedo said that Babelay's family clearly loved him and did the very best they could to help him handle his mental illness. "So many give up on the mentally ill," he said, but it is obvious that Babelay was loved. "It's sad," he said. "It's sad for the officers who have to take a life, it's sad for the life that's been taken, and it's sad for the family that tried their best."
In an April 25 letter to Council, Jim Harrington, executive director of the TCRP, requests the appointment, through the Office of Police Monitor, of an independent consultant to investigate the shooting. Harrington wrote that officers at the scene did not, "from what we can tell," use any techniques to de-escalate the confrontation before it ended in gunfire. Indeed, with that in mind, he wrote, "the police chief's posting that the victim was after 'suicide by cop' appears to be an unacceptable, self-serving post facto rationalization, especially in view of an individual being killed by the police."
Harrington continued by writing that the APD has a bad history when it comes to dealing with the mentally ill, confrontations that have resulted in "their killing some citizens," he wrote. "We invoke your intervention so that no one with mental health episodes is unnecessarily killed."
In return, Acevedo issued a statement, saying that while the department is "constantly reviewing tactics and procedures for opportunities to refine response protocols," he said that when officers are confronted with the threat of deadly force they have an "obligation and a duty to protect the individual(s), and themselves."
Still, on at least one point Harrington and Acevedo agree: Mental health services are "woefully inadequate," as Acevedo put it, often forcing police into the public health service arena. Indeed, this has long been an issue in Austin and clearly an ongoing problem.
"The [APD] will do its part to do everything humanly possible to preserve life as we always do," Acevedo said, "but ultimately, we will continue to have these tragedies if the rest of society ails to join us in this shared responsibility."