When police do not protect: a 2010 suicide baiting in San Francisco
I had never heard the expression thin blue line until 2010. Like most – if I thought about police at all – I believed they were public servants who bravely put their lives on the line every day in order to protect ours. I never figured I would be someone who had a problem with them. Never imagined that a seemingly innocent police jingle such as “they work to make your day” at sfcity.com could traumatize me to the core. Never thought about why Serpico and Dirty Harry Callahan stood out as cultural hero cops.
All this changed for me on the Tuesday of the seventh week in that cataclysmic year when San Francisco police officers casually and coldly watched as revelers provoked my mentally disabled son into jumping six stories to his death in Hallidie Plaza, San Francisco. Dylan Yount, my only child, would savagely die in that 2-16-10 suicide baiting, along with the paradigm of police protection, at least in San Francisco.
The thin blue line, I learned, means the unmerited protection of all cops – by cops – good or bad, a knee-jerk reaction of blind solidarity many police unconditionally reserve for one another. The thin blue line makes covering up misconduct easy and holding bad cops accountable difficult. It is particularly offensive in a suicide baiting because everyone is a victim.
In that same year, I began exploring the SFPD’s violent history of dealing with the mentally ill, discovering the past police “playbook” to be a brutal list of failures regarding encounters with people whose only crimes had been the urgent need of psychiatric care.
There was Idriss Stelley, a mentally ill honor student brandishing a two inch knife, shot anywhere from 10 to 48 times – depending on your news source – but definitely in a barrage of gunfire volleyed by nine SFPD officers in front of the Sony Metreon in SoMa in 2001. His mother heard her only child’s death scene, live, via a phone call.
There was Teresa Sheenan, a schizophrenic shot in the face, chest, shoulders, and groin in 2008, also threatening SFPD officers with a knife. And Randal Dunklin – mentally ill and confined to his wheelchair – shot repeatedly in the groin for brandishing a knife in front of a mental health facility in 2011. Vinh Bui. Michael Lee. Edward Smith. Pralith Pralourng. So many atrocities, in fact, that if my purpose were to research and document SFPD brutality toward the mentally disabled, I would require a staff. Instead, I stick to what I know – suicide baiting and how the SFPD continues to mishandle it.
Reading their mission statement offers an astonishing contrast with their service at my son’s suicide baiting. Even though the SFPD says that “protection of human life” is its highest priority and pleads an insistence that its officers “must respect and protect the rights of all citizens as guaranteed by the States Constitution,” their busy battalion of city lawyers is vigorously fighting us on these very claims in Yount v City and County of San Francisco. They claim Dylan’s civil rights were not violated because police do not “owe” protection to anyone, especially not to society’s most endangered, the suicidal.
Equally contradictory are statements pledging to “focus” on crime prevention, to treat the public with “respect and dignity,” to “know” and “use” the most effective strategies to “enforce” and “maintain” order – every “vision” hollow, every “value” an empty hypocrisy. The instant exoneration of criminals and public denigration (CA Penal Code 401; “Get back into your apartment, YOU FOOL!”) both exacerbated the disorder at the suicide baiting which only ceased after the crowd’s penultimate objective had been achieved – a provoked death, followed by the final disgusting police officiation – the vulgar photo op for the taunters they treated like matadors cutting off the bull’s ear to the adulation of the crowd.
The fact is the SFPD is falsely advertising services it does not provide. Why show up at all? Even in the most cynical police-presence scenario – to protect bystanders from a falling body – the SFPD exposes its bias. In choosing to protect a raging crowd rather than a persecuted victim, they are saying my son’s life was less important because he “chose” to be mentally ill. Who, again, was in danger?
Their defiant stance should make us wonder whether such egregious misconduct is isolated to San Francisco or reflects police protection changes everywhere. Certainly, the Bureau of Labor Statistics dispels just how dangerous police work is. Their work does not fall anywhere into the country’s top ten most dangerous jobs. It trails work done by linesmen, ironworkers, pilots, and truckers; policing is less dangerous than fishing, trash collecting, logging, farming, roofing, and construction.
Likewise, we might believe that low customer satisfaction might make them disproportionally suicidal themselves. Statistics are less clear. Reading about the tragic August 2013 suicide of a former SFPD commander reminded me of the only suicide I can remember from childhood, also by a policeman who had lived on our street. I would grow up hearing adults – mindful that we children might be within hearing range – referring to his death by shaking their heads and murmuring to each other, “He’d seen a lot.”
Such despair is the very reason we should not varnish over the damage inflicted by a suicide baiting. Cops live with what they see and do, too. I will always wonder if the three 2010 SFPD suicides related in any way to Dylan’s death, just as I will always remember tearfully asking my attorney in 2011, “Why can’t we just all sit down together to talk about what happened?” SFPD top brass and their lawyers disallow such contact, evoking that sinister blue line that separates “them” from “us,” delivering their official denial of wrongdoing from behind a blue wall of secrecy.
To those who wonder why that other first responder, the fireman, “gets all the love,” a Facebook post from Dylan’s best friend in Concord, California, just outside San Francisco, explains it perfectly. Her blurry pic of grinning Brownie Scouts lovingly headed out with dinner intended for local firefighters who subdued the threatening Mt. Diablo, Morgan blaze makes me smile. I know Dylan would have loved it, too. The 10 youngsters are grouped around their supplies and homemade poster, its childish, cheerful scribble simply reading, “Thank you.” The Brownies were grateful.
Message to the SFPD: We are not grateful. We are appalled. No one was grateful in Hallidie Plaza on Mardi Gras Tuesday, 2010. They were traumatized. Your officers replaced the “long arm of justice” with the long extension of the middle finger not only to Dylan, but to all the thousands you continue to traumatize. In your nihilistic and pigheaded defense for such disgusting behavior, you sully your whole profession.
A suicide baiting can often end well. Take Loerrach, Germany, 2006. Google German teens urge suicide jump, brawl ensues or Dvork Uncensored: Spectators take sides and brawl over suicide attempt or just picture a despondent 21 year-old woman contemplating suicide atop a courthouse roof. Thirty-five police officers are called in to control the “mass brawl” raging below between the youth urging her to jump and the homeless people heartily attacking them. It is a melee that Steinbeck could have written, reminiscent of the antics of Mack and the boys in Cannery Row.
In the end, six officers were injured and eight arrests were made, but a young life was saved. Undoubtedly, everyone went home that night changed. The spiritual, grateful for heroes. For humanity. For common decency.
I can feel that love all the way through the distance of time. I could not have envisioned in 2006 how this would become one of the happiest stories I would ever know. I was incapable of understanding how the paradigm of police protection would shift in 2010 in San Francisco in a suicide baiting that would kill my son. It is the most painful transformation I have ever known.