‘Constant breaking of your heart:’ How Utah police respond to mental health crises

Police shootings often involve someone who is suicidal or in a crisis.

(Courtesy of FRONTLINE) Victoria Thomas recalls the police shooting that killed her son, Marc Neal, on Feb. 3, 2020.

Victoria Thomas remembers the snow and how the heavy flakes came down, falling on the body of her dead son, Marc Neal, as police investigated the February 2020 shooting in her front yard. She remembers investigators digging around for officers’ shell casings.

Neal, 56, was a loving son, Thomas said, but he struggled with mental illness. She said that illness led to the confrontation with officers and she blames it for his death.

She also remains upset at the officers who fired at him.

In 2020, at least 40% of people Utah police shot at were experiencing a mental health event, according to a Salt Lake Tribune database that tracks police shootings. This data point was gleaned from news reports, and includes cases where police determined or family members reported that a person had a mental health issue, mental disability or was suicidal.

[Read more: Utah Attorney General’s Office ‘surprised’ police shot at so many people in 2020]

“It’s concerning,” said Nathan Crippes, an attorney with Utah’s Disability Law Center. “It’s also unfortunate. But it’s not altogether surprising.”

While conversations about police shootings have often revolved around race, Crippes said the Disability Law Center has been asking lawmakers and law enforcement to consider the risks of people with disabilities, particularly those experiencing a mental health crisis. And possibly provide additional training.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Thomas said her son, Neal, was dissatisfied, like the world wasn’t moving fast enough for him. As a child, he used Ritalin to treat his attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

That worked for a while, Thomas said, but doctors recommended switching him to Risperidone, an antipsychotic drug, when he was a teenager.

Thomas said the new drug seemed to bring the hyperactive parts of his brain to a normal speed, but slowed the rest of it down and made it hard for him to function. He battled mental health issues and later substance use disorder.

“When we had our talk on that Saturday [before he was killed], he was telling me that he felt he had nothing,” Thomas said.

On Feb. 3, the following Monday, her husband, Paul, woke her from a nap to say Neal was outside with a gun.

Thomas and her husband called 911 and told dispatchers Neal was armed, acting weird, high on methamphetamine and had a history of mental health issues.

What no one but Neal knew it at the time was the gun he was carrying was fake. Thomas said he brought it to goad police into shooting him. He’d talked about doing something like this before.

Officers arrived just before noon, using a loudspeaker to tell Neal to put his gun down and his hands up, the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office said.

Police negotiated with him for about 12 minutes — as the department’s single less-than-lethal beanbag gun was en route — and then Neal raised his gun. Six officers opened fire.

Neal was still alive, but as two officers, Kaley Erickson and Rob Walser, approached they said Neal still had the firearm in his hand and was moving. They shot him again.

Thomas said her son’s body remained in the snow for hours. She remembered his eyes were open. She asked to close them. Officers wouldn’t let her into the crime scene.

“[Mental illness is] a chemical imbalance in the brain that science hasn’t yet figured out how to correct,” Thomas said. “I lost my son because of that.”

Police shootings and mental health rose to the forefront in September when a Salt Lake City officer shot and injured 13-year-old Linden Cameron. Linden’s mom had called police for help to get her son to a hospital for treatment. She sought a trained crisis intervention officer. That was not what she got.

(Screenshot via Salt Lake City Police Department/YouTube) A screengrab from body camera footage shows the interaction between police and Linden Cameron, a 13-year-old boy with autism, on Sept. 4, 2020. Cameron was shot multiple times after Linden's mother called police for help to get the boy to the hospital for treatment. 

Instead, several Salt Lake City police officers responded and chased after the boy as he ran. One of them opened fire, severely injuring the teen.

The shooting drew national outrage and Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown said the department would analyze what happened “through a lens of learning.”

The issues surrounding mental health and policing are complex, and include questions about training, a community’s commitment to supporting mental health care and whether police should respond to calls like the one from Linden’s family at all.

“Law enforcement should not be our crisis managers,” said Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, whose office reviewed more than half of 2020′s police shootings. “There is incredible systemic failure both in access to mental health and the way we respond to those individuals that creates a pressure point of conflict where law enforcement is responding and it ends in the loss of life.”

Crippes said it’s important that communities connect people with mental health issues to resources like housing assistance or a place they can go when they need support so they don’t reach the point of being in a crisis.

Ian Adams, the executive director of the Utah Fraternal Order of Police, said years of defunding community resources to treat mental illness has made society over-reliant on police. Trying to get people with mental health issues help before 911 is called is the “only hope of positive intervention.”

“For the most part, police are incredibly successful at handling it,” he said. “But unfortunately, at times, those incidents become quite violent and officers are required to protect themselves and others through use of force.”

Thomas isn’t happy with the way the police handled her son’s case. She said she initially accepted Gill’s reasoning when he decided in August that officers were justified in shooting Neal.

Then she read her son’s autopsy and learned that the shots that killed him were not fired in that first volley.

She said she understands the first wave of gunfire, but she thinks the last bullets were akin to “cold-blooded” murder, because while Neal still had the gun, he’d been shot multiple times, including in the wrist of his shooting hand, and was no longer a threat.

Grieving his loss, she said, has been tough. She wakes up carrying a sadness. A song or a smell or a sight will remind her of Neal.

“It’s the constant breaking of your heart,” Thomas said. “You get it kind of back together again and something comes up and it just shatters.”

Editor’s note: If you or people you know are at risk of self-harm, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24-hour support at 1-800-273-8255.

This story is part of a collaboration with FRONTLINE’s Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

FRONTLINE reporter Muna Mohamed contributed to this article.