Alleged SBC Incident in Iowa Prompts Call for More Mental Health Training

A call for more training in the aftermath of the shooting death of a suicidal subject is an understandable reaction. The only logical next step, however, is to provide police departments with the resources necessary to fulfill that request.

Doug Wyllie Crop Headshot

In early January of last year, deputies with the Woodbury County Sheriff's Office responded to a call from a resident at a Sergeant Bluff, IA, mobile home park of possible burglary. When they arrived at the scene, they came upon a man wielding a tire iron who suddenly charged at them in an apparent unprovoked attack.

Unbeknownst to arriving deputies, the man—later identified as Michael Meredith—had suffered for most of his life with anxiety, and in recent years with alcoholism. According to the Sioux City Journal, at the time of this death, Meredith was "taking a prescription medication for anxiety as well as two antidepressants, all drugs found in his system in a postmortem toxicology report."

Arriving deputies were also unaware of the fact that Meredith had recently suffered hallucinations and indications of severe paranoia, and even expressed to his family very specific suicidal ideation. According to the Globe Gazette, Meredith's mother said, "He told me if I tried to commit him, he would commit suicide by police." She wasn't sure what that meant so he further explained to her, "I'll do something so the police will shoot me."

Averting Future Tragedy

Body camera video footage of the incident released to the public shows how rapidly the incident unfolded. Meredith is seen emerging from a residence as officers shout, "Show us your hands! Show us your hands! Show us your hands!" Meredith quickly advances forward in an aggressive posture.

Then, a single shot rings out. The time between the instant the man appeared in the doorway to the domicile and the time he lay wounded on the ground spanned just four seconds.

A headline in the News-Press & Gazette read, "Possible 'Suicide by Cop' Incidents, Like Michael Meredith's, Show Need for Mental Health Training." That headline could well have been, "Call for More Police Training Prompts Call for More Police Funding."

A call for further training for police officers to deal with potentially suicidal subjects is not invalid—more training is almost never a bad thing. A variety of studies have concluded that a significant number—10-20%, depending on the study—of police contacts involve persons with some degree of mental illness, or who are at the time of the contact experiencing a significant mental health crisis.

So, more training is good—but training has costs. It takes money and time (which is also money) to give officers CIT and other mental health training, but many (if not all) law enforcement agencies are dealing with at least some manner of budget crisis. Some have been outright defunded, while others are saddled with budget cuts stemming from "reallocation of resources" mandates from elected officials.

Further, it's pretty fair to say that no amount of training could have changed the outcome of the incident in Sergeant Bluff a year ago. It's also pretty fair to say that had the responding officers had more information than just a burglary call, the result may have been different—had they known of the subject's compromised mental state they might have had a different approach.

The shooting death of Michael Meredith is quite clearly a tragedy for everyone involved—the family of the man, the individual himself, and the first responders who were placed in an impossible situation that fateful day. A call for more training in the aftermath of this terrible event is an understandable reaction. The only logical next step, however, is to provide police departments with the resources necessary to fulfill that request.

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