“I’m looking for people to stop fights before they happen and I want people to be more aware of the common man”.
Juston Root, 41 – from posted video just one day before his death
On February 6, 2020 Juston Root posted a few minutes of video in which he espoused a disjointed series of thoughts espousing the importance of being aware of the common man and using friends for support. Was Root speaking about himself, perhaps in need of someone? He died one day later in a frightening series of events that lasted seven chaotic minutes leaving this common man dead.
Juston Root had a long history of mental illness. On the day of his death, he was seen at a local hospital in Boston displaying what appeared to be a firearm. Interestingly, his parents reported he liked to carry replica handguns sometimes using a should holster. This bespeaks an attraction to firearms and yet he did not own a real weapon. It is not clear why he chose the hospital district on Longwood to make his initial foray. He was said to have made threatening statements to law enforcement officers who he first encountered. What was said? Did Mr. Root threaten the first BPD officer seen in the video? Did the officer get a look at the weapon shown and could he have been expected to recognize it as a replica? Our training and experience set the stage for this level of acumen.
Video of the scene showed Root parked in the middle of traffic wandering in and out of the frame. 4 -way hazard lights activated. Was Root so rule bound that even on his last hurrah he had the provision of thought to set his hazard lights? This seems unlikely for someone in a terminal state of homicidal or suicidal rage. What was his state of mind once shot?
At some point shortly after this initial encounter a parking lot valet was shot in the head and critically injured. Mr Root did not shoot the parking attendant but this was not clear amid the next moments of radio traffic. The fact that the attendant was injured by friendly fire simply was not reported and likely, was not clear at this point in the investigation. This set the stage for manhunt that quickly came together looking for someone who had shot a parking lot attendant and pointed a weapon at the police officer. It is at this point that Root made a run for it setting into action an all hands on deck police gauntlet that he had little chance of evading.
“There will always times when police officers encounter those with mental health needs especially in times of crisis. Training and education offer the best hope for safe and efficient handling of cases. A continuum of options for detox, dangerousness assessment, and symptom management must be readily available – but here in Massachusetts they are not”
Michael Sefton, 2017
What happened next triggered a chaotic police response that led to his death just minutes after he displayed a handgun aiming it toward a Boston Police Officer. It may have ended right there had the first responding officer rightfully met force with force. The physical reaction of the first officer almost looked as though he was expecting Root’s replica to go “boom”. But he held fire. An officer 20-30 feet further away saw this and fired upon Mr. Root wounding him and hitting someone down range of the incident. Officers are responsible for where the rounds go once they leave their weapon so it is always best they hit an intended target on the range or in the street.
It is likely that area police agencies were put on tactical alert. When this happens, adjacent cities and towns clear their call screens and have available units staged at intersections watching for the suspect vehicle. In the end, the weapon he carried was determined to be a replica or toy.
In his preamble on February 6, he suggested that people should not call police because they often are not aware of what was happening and 911 calls often result in police “storming in” in an effort to eliminate a threat to the public. Root seemed aware that “a lot of bad things can happen in the name of justice” when people call police in what he says are “fabricated phone calls”. This presentiment may be his experience living with mental illness for decades of his life. Juston Root was known to stop taking prescribed medication aimed at keeping hallucinations and delusions at bay and regulating his mood.
The body worn video is chaotic and has been edited. Multiple officers can be heard shouting instructions at Root, a 41-year-old with a long history of mental illness who had brandished a fake gun at an officer earlier in the day. When situations like this occur the adrenaline often drives officers into elevated state of arousal that requires keen environmental awareness to assure actions taken are lawful. The county D.A. in the case has determined that, given the totality of the circumstances, the degree of lethal force directed at Juston Root was lawful.
In the moments before he was killed by police gunfire an off duty paramedic made an effort to care for root but was ordered to back away by police. The crash was caught on video tape from the traffic light camera on Route 9 in Brookline. It was sensational and Mr. Root was obviously traveling at a high rate of speed when he crashed. He was attempting to flee.
“Moments later, he walks onto the mulched area where Root was shot, approaching an officer standing over an object that appears to be a gun.” Video that is released reveals police officers warning each other about talking openly on tape. Some say there was bravado and even laughter after the threat was gone.
”Is it fake?” the first officer asks. Yes, was the answer and officers at the scene began to understand that Root may have died as a result of officer-assisted suicide. Something no officer ever wants to encounter. Someone so distraught that they put themselves into the line of fire by acting as if they are holding a firearm or other weapon forcing police to use deadly force. It is not clear that this was his intention given the remarks he recorded one day earlier.
Mr. Root had grown up with mental illness that was first diagnosed when he was 19-years old. This is quite typical of the major mental illnesses like schizophrenia or bipolar depression that present themselves in late adolescence. The National Alliance on Mental Illness described Schizoaffective disorder as having clinical features of both schizophrenia and major depression. They can be unpredictable and often exhibit signs of hallucinations, delusions, poor impulse control, and suicidal behavior. Among these patients, officer-facilitated suicide would not be unheard of. But Root’s father said he had been stable over the preceding five years although he had a history of carrying fake guns. He was quick to point out that his son often stopped taking his prescribed medication. But in his taped preamble he was not angry and made no threats toward law enforcement. In fact, he indicated that he had friends on the police force although it is likely the friends of whom he speaks were officers he encountered over the years but I am being conjectural.
If Mr. Root intended to die by police officer gunfire he may not have activated his hazard lights which can be seen blinking as he staggered away from the wreckage of his Chevrolet Volt. In his video statement he started by saying he had friends on the police force. There was no obvious animosity toward law enforcement. If he had had a genuine firearm and intended to go out in a blaze of glory, he may have made a final stand either at the wreckage of his vehicle or somewhere nearby like behind a tree. That was not the case. Root was trying to get away. No final stand. No “fuck you” to the world. He was down when he was shot and there was a person there to help him who was ordered away. An officer can be heard saying “he is still moving” after the barrage of rounds over 30 in all.
Juston Root was mentally cogent enough to activate his 4-way hazard lights after the high speed crash and in video that could be seen when he first entered the Longwood hospital district. Why? A formal psychological autopsy that is transparently guided might find an answer to that question. Hospital Police were on guard and had been victim of a homicide that took place inside the hospital itself in January 2015. Juston Root was here for 41 years living in what he perceived was a dangerous world. He came and grew to have an affinity for law enforcement he left without leaving any foot prints or last words.
“The important part of crisis intervention training comes in the interdisciplinary relationships that are forged by this methodology. Trust and respect between the police and its citizens builds slowly one person at a time. “
Michael Sefton, 2017
Police officers have historically been ill prepared to deal with people exhibiting signs of mental illness or severe emotional disturbance. Many were thought to be unpredictable and therefore resistant to the typical verbal judo officer’s are trained to use. The CIT programs provided training to police officers in an attempt to bridge the gap between myths about mental illness passed down from one generation of LEO’s to the next and actual training and experience in talking with citizens experiencing a crisis in their life, learning about techniques to manage a chaotic scene, strategies for enhanced listening, understanding the most commonly encountered disorders and role playing. For one thing some person’s afflicted with mental illness have difficulty following directions such as those suspected of hearing voices, paranoia or command hallucinations but this is not always the case. Many individuals CIT trained officers will encounter are normal human beings who are experiencing a high stress, crisis such as the death of a loved one, financial loss, failed marriage or relationship, or major medical illness. This adds a layer of complexity to the CIT model that officers soon experience.
Acuity increases with encounters of mentally ill who are both substance dependent and have some co-occurring psychiatric condition. The alcohol or drugs are often veiled in the underlying “mental illness” but in truth they are not mutually exclusive. The importance of treatment for substance dependence and mental illness cannot be understated as violent encounters between law enforcement and the mentally ill have been regularly sensationalized. The general public is looking for greater public safety while at the same time M.H. advocates insist that with the proper treatment violent police encounters may be reduced and jail diversion may be achieved.
5 Stages of Police Crisis Intervention
Scene safety – Assess for presence of firearms – obtain history of address from dispatch – have back-up ready
Make contact with complainant & subject – express a desire to help; listen to explanation of the problem – ascertain what is precipitating factor?
Establish direct communication with subject – attempt to establish trust; support for taking steps toward change; “why now?”; identify any immediate threats – sobriety, weapons
Pros and Cons for change – ascertain how willing is subject to begin change process, i.e. sobriety, counseling, detoxification
Positive expectations for change = direct movement toward change – hospital program; rewards that will come with positive change
“A crisis event can provide an opportunity, a challenge to life goals, a rapid deterioration of functioning, or a positive turning point in the quality of one’s life”
(Roberts & Dziegielewski, 1995)
There is a high degree of stress in any call involving a person in crisis. Repeated exposure to trauma is known to change the fight/flight balance we seek for emotional stability. Excessive autonomic arousal poses a threat to cardiac functioning and damaging hypertension. After high intensity/high lethality calls I suggest a defusing session take place immediately after the shift or as soon as possible. Excess adrenaline from an abnormal stress response can have significant health effects on LEO’s. Defusing or debriefing sessions can help reduce the impact of these types of calls. Full critical incident debriefing should wait until the normal effects of such calls wear off.
What is currently understood as repeated exposure to trauma and its emotional impact was once thought to be a testament to toughness invoking the specter of a wall of silence. Law enforcement and first responder suicide has increased over the past several years and now exceeds the number of LEO’s killed in the line of duty. Why are cops choosing to take their lives? This is especially felt in Chicago where seven officers have taken their own lives in the last 8 months. In more than one case an officer committed suicide in the police vehicle or in the police department parking lot.
My colleague Dr. Leo Polizoti, Police Consulting Psychologist at the Direct Decision Institute, Inc. has been active in law enforcement training, fitness, and prescreening for over 40 years. He served over 30 agencies across New England and provides supportive psychotherapy as needed.
Dr Polizoti and I were recently involved in a symposium on Police Suicide in Chicago sponsored by Daninger Solutions from Daytona Beach, Florida. Among the presenters were Dr Thomas Joiner from the University of Miami, recognized expert in suicide, police sergeant Mark Debona from Orlando, Florida and Dr Daniel Hollar, Chairman in department of Behavior Science at Berthune-Cookman University in Tallahassee, Florida and CEO at Daninger Solutions.
There are many reasons why police officers have an increased levels of depression and stress. Most are associated with repeated exposure to traumatic events like exposure to dead bodies, violence, childhood injury or death, terrorism, fatal car crashes, and more. Most officers are able to remain professionally hearty when provided the opportunity to defuse the exposure soon after an incident. Career performance should include reducing officer depression and embitterment by building resilience starting in the academy and lasting throughout an LEO’s career.
The Mind-Body connection is well established and the role of stress in LEO career well-being is becoming a agency focus beginning in the academy.
“Not only must we as negotiators learn to take care of ourselves emotionally and physically – we must also be prepared to intervene with an actively suicidal officer. “
Dave DeMarco FOX News Kansas City
Is it any wonder officers lose hope and resilience. There are inherent risks that LEO’s assume when they sign on like forced overtime, changing shifts, off-duty court appearances, the chance they may become injured, disabled or killed while serving the community. There are also systemic stressors like supervisory bullying, professional jealousy, lack of opportunity to have an impact on policy, career stagnation, and paramilitary chain of command that often devalues education and innovation. Agencies are beginning to track exposure to trauma and its correlated change police officer resilience in real time.
In Worcester, Massachusetts, LEO’s are required to attend defusing sessions following high lethality/high acuity exposure. These sessions are kept private from members of the command staff and records are saved by the police consulting psychologist. The department has nearly 500 officers who are paid for their participation when they attend. It has been proposed that officers undergo annual “wellness checks” as a routine in some agencies such as KCMO. I have proposed a system of tracking officer call acuity and invoking mandated behavioral health assessment after a specified number of high acuity/high lethality calls for service. This is one way of reducing the stigma that officers face when they are sent for “fitness” evaluation or any sort of behavioral health care. The stigma associated with mental health may be reduced by having specified referrals following identified high profile incidents. Officers may be considered to be getting peak performance training at these defusing sessions as they are designed for enhancing officer awareness and reducing the human stress response.
Now, the KCMO department has mandated yearly wellness exams for officers in certain units like homicide and those dealing with child abuse. This was initiated to decrease the impact of traumatic events on police officer well-being. Officers at KCMO can also get up to six free anonymous visits to a mental health clinician each year, and the department has a peer support team. Mental health clinicians must have experience working with law enforcement officers for best results. Training for clinicians should be provided to best work with LEO’s and first responders. This is especially true for officers who self-refer. Clinical hours should be supervised by the police consulting psychologist.
The age of deinstitutionalized mental health began in the 1960’s with the advent of medicine that helped to control the symptoms experienced by the afflicted and institutionalized. It was liberating. The collective conscience of the day believed that by releasing the mentally ill we would reintegrate into society the thousands of people and bring them back into our liberal family. The legion of state hospital beds were no longer to be needed. Or so we were told.
On the one hand, there were many who embraced the idea of deinstitutionalizing thousands of patients. They were to be promised catchment area clinics where they could see their doctors and receive on-going care. Many thrived in community-based programs but there were just as many who where frightened by the sudden loss of structure and routine afforded them by the state hospital system that had become their homes. For many they had nowhere to go. There was nothing for them in the communities across the country and no welcome mat to offer comfort.
“In Massachusetts, as elsewhere in the United States, the closing of state psychiatric hospital has been a highly contentious issue” (Ahmed & Plog, 1976; Morrissey, 1989).
It is well known that the state hospital system across the country was not sustainable. Here in Massachusetts, there were more psychiatric beds than there were medical beds. As the pharmacology of mental illness became better understood there was less need to keep people with severe mental illness in hospitals. Treatment options became community-based including access to a broad range of therapy now available for management of symptoms of mental illness.
“In Massachusetts, as elsewhere in the United States, the closing of state psychiatric hospital has been a highly contentious issue” (Ahmed & Plog, 1976; Morrissey, 1989). Yet, then Governor William Weld had closed the majority of state hospitals by 1993.
Thus, the closure of hospitals began in earnest, in the late 1980’s, so patients could be released to communities everywhere to live their lives in the least restrictive environment needed assured of their right to treatment and the right of free choice. The problem was that many of the institutionalized were unprepared for the world that awaited them. They were afraid to take the medications being pushed on them and refused to comply. Many had no welcoming family and many had no friends. Some slowly evaporated into a cold society who were unkind to people who were strange and muttered to themselves.
Money spent keeping thousands people Americans in state hospitals could now be funneled into community clinics and those with mental illness could return to their homes. The ground swell for this model resulted in hundreds of thousands of institutionalized human beings being released to alternative programming that, for some, was both disruptive and tortuous or never materialized. The promise of “cures from mental illness” was laid at the feet of the purveyors of psychotropic medication and the pharmaceutical companies across the country. There was money to be made by opening the doors of the state hospitals in community-based programs like the Los Angeles County Mental Health in Long Beach, CA – my first assignment as a psychologist.
So now we are at ground zero in terms of programming for the 2-3 percent of individuals with major mental illness like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, paranoia, major depressive disorder, and others. They wander the streets moving in and out of shelters. They are a herd in some cities and are driven from one side of the street to the other. And back again, as political whims dictate. They frequently come into contact with law enforcement who may not wish to go “hands-on” with someone who is hallucinating and raving about his demons.
In 2020, CIT teams are trained in de-escalating the crazed for their own safety while a co-response model brings a licensed mental health worker to the scene to call for a bed or lend a supportive ear. Many are repeat encounters or “frequent flyers” as they are known. Sadly, the access to hospital beds is a closely guarded secret and there is often no place to send them. The personnel serving the mentally ill make call after call looking for someplace to admit the person now on their radar screen. This can take hours. It is tough work, I have done it, and took pride in the cases I was able to help. But the burn out rate is very high and jobs are always available.
Stabilization and hospitalization of people in crisis is a moral responsibility of us all. Without resources there is a large part of our society for whom there is no safety net suffering with emotional illness that often leaves them marginalized, despondent, and on the brink. And no one is better off with a system that is as impoverished as this. The pendulum should slowly swing back toward a new model that may accommodate the seriously mentally ill while bringing stabilization to those who require respite from the scary place in which they live filled with demons, too often in their heads.