Sheriff Tony Spurlock said
officers deal with people in mental crises themselves because there
aren’t enough avenues for getting them help
By Noelle Phillips
The Denver Post
DENVER — In the hours before a fatal encounter
with a man in the throes of a mental crisis, Douglas County Sheriff’s
Deputy Zackari Parrish listened calmly as the man’s illogical ramblings
fluctuated among screams, whispers and giggles.
The man bragged
about his wealth, law degree and military service. He spoke about a
quarrel with his lover and about robots and lasers. Parrish and his
fellow deputies, having defused the situation, left without making an
arrest or putting him on a mental health hold.
Two hours later, the man’s agitation had escalated. The morning would end with Parrish and the man dead. Four more officers and two civilians would be wounded by gunfire.
deputies arrived at 5:17 a.m. on Dec. 31, Matthew Riehl was making loud
noises and met Parrish and Deputy Taylor Davis on the landing outside
his apartment. He refused to allow deputies inside or to come outside to
talk to them.
“Go away. Goodnight. Go away!” Riehl yelled amid his rants from behind a door he slammed shut. “Happy New Year!”
“Boy, he’s manic,” Parrish told Davis as he determined they needed to take Riehl into custody on a mental health hold.
week, Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock released several hours of
raw body-camera footage recorded as his deputies responded to calls at
Riehl’s apartment at 3 a.m. and 5:17 a.m.
The footage provides a
firsthand view of how a deputy tried to handle an increasingly
combative, unpredictable and argumentative person whose mind was not
functioning properly. Law enforcement officers often must make quick,
high-pressure assessments on how much of a public-safety threat the
person poses and whether to back away or take them into custody. These
encounters happen hundreds of times a year, sometimes with wildly
Spurlock said he released the footage, in
part, because there is a national crisis when it comes to mental health
care, and law enforcement officers must deal with people in mental
crises themselves because there aren’t enough treatment centers or other
avenues for getting them help.
“Law enforcement is doing its very
best to try to deal with them during this ad hoc, emergency situation,”
Spurlock said in an interview last week. “We’re doing whatever we can
and that’s exactly what Deputy Parrish was trying to do. Calm him down
and keep him as calm as we possibly could and get him to where we could
get him to a hospital or some treatment facility.”
footage, which often is graphic, shows how deputies interacted with
Riehl and his roommate, how they approached Riehl inside his apartment,
the moment he opened fire and then how deputies fled from rounds fired
through a bedroom door. When deputies realized Parrish had fallen after
being struck, they made multiple attempts to rescue him, but Riehl was
heavily armed and had a tactical advantage from his second-story
Spurlock also said he wanted the public to see the
“enormous firepower we were against” and the “number of times officers
put their lives on the line to get Zack Parrish.”
have warned for years that the United States’ unwillingness to fund
mental health care services is taking a toll on law enforcement, said
Louis Dekmar, president of the International Association of Chiefs of
Police and chief at the LaGrange Police Department in Georgia.
public policy has been, frankly, to ignore it,” Dekmar said. “As a
result, the police are left to deal with it when individuals are in
His organization conducted an analysis of 700 police
shootings and found 36 percent were “suicide by cop.” Dekmar also
referenced a 2015 Washington Post report on fatal police shootings
that found a quarter of the 462 people killed during the first six
months of that year were mentally ill.
“What is frustrating is
before that fatal encounter officers have interacted with these
individuals two, three, five times and sometimes have even taken them to
a hospital for treatment,” Dekmar said. “It’s a significant
officer-safety issue. It’s a community-safety issue. And it’s a safety
issue for the people who are suffering.”
Indeed, Douglas County
sheriff’s deputies had made repeated trips to visit Riehl during the
weeks before the shooting. Those visits included the office’s community
response team, which has mental health professionals working
hand-in-hand with deputies. The sheriff’s office said the Riehl family
had declined services.
The team has made more than 500 calls. None had resulted in gunfire until New Year’s Eve, Spurlock said.
in this case it went violent,” Spurlock said. “And then we switched
gears. Once he went violent on us, it was too late to go back and try to
help him. “
The first call
Riehl called 911 at 3 a.m. on Dec. 31 to report a domestic assault.
Parrish quietly talked to the roommate inside, another deputy
questioned Riehl — who was becoming increasingly louder — outside.
Parrish asked the roommate why Riehl would be so upset.
It’s the first indication that Parrish had detected a mental health issue.
“Is he on anything?” Parrish asked. “Does he have any mental disabilities?”
roommate answered that he wasn’t aware of anything. Just as Parrish was
about to wrap up the call, Riehl, who was outside with another deputy,
began shouting, “Assault! Assault! Assault! Rape! Rape!”
That deputy had his hand pressing on Riehl’s chest.
Parrish asked the roommate a second time if he knew whether Parrish had a mental illness diagnosis.
sounds like he might have some mental issues,” Parrish said. “A mental
diagnosis. I don’t know if you can encourage him to have that checked
out. But obviously not tonight.”
Throughout the encounter, Parrish
asked multiple questions. He asked Riehl about his sexual relationship
with his roommate, his employment, his education, his money situation.
He listened as Riehl talked about the conflict with his roommate, people
smoking marijuana outside and how he hit his roommate in the chest with
“The reason we ask these hard questions that are tough to answer is we want to make sure you’re OK,” Parrish said.
Parrish was using his training to figure out just where Riehl was mentally.
policing and mental health experts said they did not want to comment
specifically about the Douglas County case, multiple people interviewed
said officers responding to mental health calls listen to a person’s
words, observe their mannerisms and quickly try to assess the situation.
of our training is basically decisionmaking,” said Sgt. John Wilton,
who coordinates crisis intervention training at the Aurora Police
Department. “What’s the safest outcome for the greatest number of people
on this call?”
After the first call, Parrish and his colleagues
determined no crime had been committed and Riehl’s behavior did not meet
the requirements under Colorado state law to take him into custody for
mental health treatment.
The second call
By the time
Parrish, Davis and the other deputies returned to Riehl’s apartment at
5:17 a.m., it was clear his agitation had escalated.
Unpredictability is a hallmark of extreme mental illness, experts said.
Chris Juul, a district executive officer at the Aurora Police
Department and former academy instructor, said people with mental
instability have highs and lows. Drug use and alcohol also can change
“The way I dealt with him last time may not work next time,” Juul said.
Parrish and his colleagues had seen enough that night to determine that Riehl needed medical treatment.
“He’s having a manic episode,” Parrish said before telling two other deputies that they needed to “take him.”
Parrish determined Riehl was having a manic episode, mental health
professionals said it would be impossible to offer a diagnosis based on a
video. Riehl’s family previously had told law enforcement in Wyoming
that he suffered from bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress
A person experiencing a manic episode can be irritable
or agitated for several days. Their behavior is hyper and excitable.
They have feelings of grandiosity and no need for sleep, said Debra
Boeldt, a psychologist at the University of Colorado Anschutz’s National
Mental Health Innovation Center.
“Their mind is just going all over the place and being easily distracted,” she said.
diagnose a person with bipolar disorder, though, a psychologist would
interview him during a period of stability, Boeldt said. She would want
to know how long the episode lasted, the person’s medical history and
the harm their behavior had caused them and their family and friends.
But police officers answering 911 calls in the middle of the night don’t have that amount of time to make an assessment.
are enormous challenges for law enforcement,” Boeldt said. “Every time
they walk into these scenarios, they don’t know what they’re going to be
It is unclear whether Parrish was aware of Riehl’s
recent history with Douglas County law enforcement. Information about
Riehl had been shared during regular briefings, and Parrish would have
had access to that information, Spurlock said. But the sheriff was
uncertain about what Parrish knew.
Parrish and his fellow deputies
were concerned about guns. Riehl made at least one reference to having
them, and, on the second call, deputies positioned themselves outside
the apartment to prepare for the possibility. They wore ballistic vests,
and Davis carried a shield.
But they would not have known just
how much firepower Riehl had. He had 11 functional guns in the apartment
and used four — an M16, an M4, a shotgun and a Glock pistol — during
the shootout, Spurlock said.
That’s the risk law enforcement officers take every day, multiple experts said.
so many variables in each one of these calls,” said Dekmar of the
chief’s association. Those variables include the risk to the person who
is sick, the officers involved and the general public, Wilton said.
must consider potential scenarios where a person could harm himself and
others. In Riehl’s case, would he have decided to take his guns to his
lover’s workplace and start shooting because he was the focus of Riehl’s
anger? Or would he have gone to sleep?
Before deputies tried to
take Riehl into custody, they spent several minutes discussing a plan.
Four deputies and a sergeant went inside. They used a key to enter but
had to kick and push through a barricade of junk piled in the apartment.
less than a minute, Riehl blasted shots through his bedroom door.
Parrish, Davis, Doyle and Deputy Jeff Pelle were shot. Riehl later would
be killed by a SWAT unit sent to rescue Parrish.
The case will be
investigated and studied by multiple agencies. But at the end of the
day, Spurlock said he can’t guarantee his deputies won’t face a similar
situation again, especially if mental illness continues to be ignored.
did every thing they were supposed to do,” Spurlock said. “They
followed all of the common procedures to deal with a mental health
patient and then it went violent.”