On the afternoon of June 12, 2000, a woman inside a small Minneapolis apartment perched stereo speakers atop a window sill facing her neighbors across the alley. She set the stereo tuner's dial somewhere between radio station frequencies and cranked up the volume; the cacophony of static was loud enough to drive the neighbors out of their minds.
It might well have been a case of misery seeking company.
By evening the neighbors had had enough and placed a call to the Minneapolis Police Department to complain about the noise and the woman causing it. But the low priority of the call and confusion about the exact location delayed the arrival of Officer Jeff Parker and Officer John Hawes.
On the Third Floor
Finally on scene, the officers ascended the stairs to the third floor apartment. Following the noise, they made their way to the back corner of the building where the apartment was located. When a knock on the door failed to elicit a response, they pushed on it.
The door slid open.
Beyond the threshold and inside the kitchen area stood Barbara Schneider. In Schneider's hands was a steak knife, gripped so tightly that her bony knuckles bled white.
"GET OUT!" she screamed.
The officers quickly tried to close the door between themselves and the knife-wielding woman. But Schneider had other plans and thus began a violent tug-of-war - with Schneider and Parker pulling the door in opposite directions.
Desperate to keep the disturbed woman at bay, Hawes reached for his can of OC and sprayed it through the crack between the door and its frame until the spray can was empty. He then took Parker's can from his belt and emptied that one, as well. When Schneider finally backed away from the doorway, Parker got on the radio to call for more squads.
Officer Bill Palmer and his partner, Officer Geoff Johnson, started rolling. If Palmer was surprised by the stress in the voice of the normally unflappable Parker, the description of the situation provided context for it.
By the time they arrived on scene, Officer Sarah Saarela and Officer Rob Illetschko were also at the location. With sufficient units in front of the complex, Johnson and Palmer parked in the alley to the rear.
Using a pocket knife, Johnson and Palmer gained access through a door at the back of the building. Walking upstairs, they arrived just as Parker and Saarela were exiting the apartment. Parker told the arriving officers that he and Saarela had gone into the apartment just far enough to determine that Schneider had barricaded herself in a bedroom.
The apartment was so filled with OC that Parker covered the bedroom door while Saarela opened all of the windows in the living room to try to air out the room. Retreating back outside to the landing, they convened with their fellow officers to decide their next course of action.
Writing on the Walls
The officers didn't know how many people were in the apartment and who else could either be at risk of injury from the knife-wielding Schneider or pose a threat to them.
Parker decided to re-enter the apartment and kick open the bedroom door in an effort to get a visual on the situation and encourage a dialogue with Schneider.
Saarela and Palmer followed Parker into the cramped hallway just inside the front door. A mere four or five steps separated them from the only bedroom in the apartment.
As Palmer took a position with limited penetration at the door to the kitchen, Saarela stood opposite him at the door to the bathroom. Behind them, three more officers-Robert Illetschko, Geoff Johnson, and John Hawes-lined up in the hallway.
Junk littered the walls and floor of the apartment. Papers, shoes, garbage, and record albums occupied most of the floor space while scatological murals in red felt tip marker-cryptic words and crude renderings of human forms-adorned the walls.
Parker prepared to kick the bedroom door open.
Even on a good day, breathing or seeing inside the apartment would have been difficult. Now, with the contents of two full cans of OC wafting through the air, Palmer's eyes were so filled with tears that he couldn't see anything.
But before Palmer could tell Parker that it was damn near impossible for him to see, Parker kicked the door open and then scooted back between Palmer and Saarela, joining the three officers behind them.
Parker's kick succeeded in giving the officers what they wanted: a clear view of Barbara Schneider in the bedroom beyond. But they didn't like what they saw.
Schneider was about 10 feet into the room, down on her haunches with her hands clasped in front of her, knuckles facing the officers.
The Satan Squad
Looking up, she saw the officers and jumped up cat-like. The officers saw the knife still clasped in her hand.
Schneider screamed, "I SEE THEY SENT THE SATAN SQUAD!"
Even as they yelled for Schneider to put the weapon down, the officers knew they were wasting their breath. The woman's mind was clearly in some other orbit and God only knew how their presence registered in her disturbed mind. In a bid for self-preservation, the officers began a hasty retreat for the door, stumbling over the junk accumulated at their feet.
Schneider calmly began to count backward from 10.
Countdown to Tragedy
Palmer realized that when Schneider got to zero they were going to have a big problem, one that the officers' close proximity to her and one another would only make worse.
The officers continued to try to back out of the apartment. Stepping on people's feet and on junk on the floor, Palmer's balance was compromised, his footing iffy.
Out of the corner of his eye, Palmer saw Saarela stumble. With his left hand, Palmer grabbed onto Saarela's shirt and tried to yank her up to keep her on her feet. He looked back and saw that Schneider had reached the door of the apartment, a mere five feet from the officers.
As Schneider clucked off each number double-time, Palmer came to the terrifying realization that there would be no way in hell for them to get safely out of the apartment and close the door before she reached zero.
And all too soon, she completed her countdown.
At "One," Schneider's wild eyes regarded the officers as though pleasantly surprised that they were still there. She started her advance and in a matter of a few steps she was on top of them.
There was no time for any last second demands, no time to even think. It was time to react.
Firing Center Mass
Palmer wasn't aware of his first trigger pull. All he would remember was the sight of two shell casings-his own and Saarela's-flying in synchronized arcs as though fired simultaneously.
Inside the doorway of the apartment, their rounds sounded like canon fire.
Schneider was now on top of Palmer and Saarela. Palmer pulled the trigger several more times without any seeming effect.
I don't believe it, he thought. I'm firing center mass and she's not stopping!
He pulled up his sight and aimed it right in the middle of her face.
He doesn't remember pulling the trigger, only seeing Schneider drop as though someone cut her legs out from underneath her. When she fell, her hair landed atop his boots.
The officers rolled her over.
A portion of her hand where she'd been holding the knife was completely gone, blown away by the officers' rounds (someone had literally aimed at the threat). There were three or four additional wounds in the right lower quadrant of her abdomen and four more dead center in her chest. Another round had entered Schneider's left cheek, traveled around her skull, and exited into the bedroom.
The officers immediately started CPR and tried to open an airway as they summoned rescue, an ambulance, and a supervisor. They tried their best to revive the life of the poor woman who had been so irrationally intent on taking theirs, but Palmer's seven years of experience as an EMT proved for naught.
As soon as rescue personnel arrived and took over, Palmer left the scene. He can't forget the expression on Schneider's face as she appeared to recognize the gravity of the situation. With a final look of fear the 49-year-old Schneider-who had been diagnosed as mentally ill years before-died at the scene.
The Barbara Schneider incident proved devastating on multiple fronts for the officers involved and for many people in Minneapolis.
Immediately following the shooting, the officers were nominated to receive a departmental award and invited to an awards banquet. Soon after that invite, the precinct commander informed them that the awards and the invitations to the banquet were rescinded.
The shooting was very controversial. Advocates for the mentally ill argued that the police could have handled the situation with more sensitivity. A lawsuit was filed. It was dismissed.
Reflecting on the incident, Palmer, who is now a sergeant, understands the anger.
"This incident was Monday morning quarterbacked a great deal," Palmer says. "I think we had a collective 20 or 30 years of law enforcement experience at that door. But none of us had ever had an experience where we faced a person with an edged weapon who wouldn't do exactly what we told them to do. So I think we all had the assumption that we're going to open this door and we're going to engage in a dialogue and we're going to sort it out."
Of course as Palmer and the other officers learned that day, talking down a rational person with a weapon is one thing. Talking down a disturbed person is quite another.
"We didn't have a lot of mental health training to prepare for this incident," Palmer continues. "We had an hour or two in the academy. I don't think we understood exactly what the problem was that we were dealing with. That night we were overconfident. We thought 'every other time we've had a situation like this, we talked our way out of it, and that's what will happen here.' So what we planned on when we went in there was to establish a dialogue. We just didn't understand that was not going to be in the playbook."
The playbook has since changed. The Minneapolis Police Department has deployed a Crisis Intervention Team modeled on the Memphis Police Department's C.I.T.
(See "Saving Future Barbara Schneiders," below.)
Palmer himself now trains officers in dealing with the mentally ill in the hopes that another Barbara Schneider tragedy can be averted.
Saving Future Barbara Schneiders
Barbara Schneider was not a criminal trying to avoid judgment and jail by attacking cops; she was a sick woman plagued by demons that most of us can't even imagine.
This is one of the reasons why many people in Minneapolis were appalled by the officer-involved shooting that claimed her life. It's also why the officers involved in the incident had such a hard time coping with it.
Since the Barbara Schneider shooting, the Minneapolis Police Department has changed its procedures for responding to incidents involving emotionally disturbed persons in hopes of saving the lives of violently mentally ill subjects like Barbara Schneider.
"One of the biggest things was we went to Memphis and picked up a C.I.T. (crisis intervention team) program and implemented it," says Sgt. Bill Palmer. "We keep 150 officers trained in the crisis intervention team model. Every officer on the department has also had at least an awareness level module on mental health response."
Minneapolis PD C.I.T. officers are used to try to de-escalate situations-not only mental health emergency response. The department has also invested heavily in less-lethal weapon options, which it didn't have in 2000.
"When we first brought C.I.T. to Minneapolis, the C.I.T. officers were the only ones with TASERs, but now we rely on our technology heavily," Palmer says.
Palmer notes that one of the biggest keys to the success of the department's C.I.T. lies in how it selects its members.
"We don't take just anybody who wants to be a C.I.T. officer. We pick officers who we think will do well in the program and who will spend the time they need to spend and try to work with people to calm them down and get them the help they need," he explains.
At the same time, the department remains realistic about the prospect for deadly force in dealing with the mentally ill and has increased sensitivity for officers who may find themselves having to deploy it.
The tragic death of Barbara Schneider also spurred the establishment of the Barbara Schneider Foundation, an organization that works with law enforcement and medical personnel in Minnesota. Law enforcement officers can learn more about this organization and its resources at www.thebarbaraschneiderfoundation.org.