David Langness: She didn’t have to die | TheUnion.com

David Langness: She didn’t have to die


Sage Crawford, 33, homeless, the widowed mother of two young daughters named Ziggy and Zoe, died Feb. 4, shot multiple times by a Nevada County sheriff’s deputy.

That brutal fact — the tragic violent death of a young mother killed in front of her traumatized small children — challenges our community to examine its moral compass and make real change.

Here are two suggestions.

First, we need to get beyond the incessant, ugly, politicized blaming and shaming that fills our outrage-inducing Facebook feeds. If you’ve seen the hard-to-watch dash-cam video edited and then released by Sheriff Shannon Moon’s office, you know that Sage reacted adversely when officers approached her, screaming and running toward them while brandishing a knife.

You know, too, that after one officer’s failed attempt to use a Taser, things escalated quickly and another officer shot Sage several times.

These obvious circumstances have generated two wildly divergent and equally simplistic and wrong social media narratives: Either the officers are criminals, or Sage deserved to die. Neither are true.

So let’s step back and look at this from a larger perspective. Sage Crawford was a human being who deserved our community’s compassion and care. We don’t know much about her mental state or what caused her deep-seated fear and mistrust, but we do know this tragedy might have been avoided.

Sage could have lived to raise Ziggy and Zoe, and the officers involved could have gone home that night without feeling responsibility for her death.

Instead of shaming individual officers or blaming the victim, though, we have to hold the larger systems themselves accountable.Truthfully, Sage’s death involved a systemic failure of our entire emergency response mechanism. As she walked with her children down a street in Alta Sierra, the resulting 911 calls dispatched armed police officers. With someone in a mental health crisis, that rarely works well.

Police officers, untrained to deal with such incidents, can unwittingly escalate matters just by showing up. Try to imagine you’re a person experiencing a psychotic episode, paranoid, in crisis — and two officers in uniforms with weapons suddenly appear, ratcheting up your irrational fear.

Other communities have figured out how to respond more effectively and peacefully using non-lethal approaches, and we can, too.In Denver, for example, the city has deployed a new Support Team Assistance Response program, which sends a mental health professional and a paramedic, both unarmed, to mental health-related 911 calls instead of police officers.

Those teams have responded to almost a thousand 911 calls during the past year. No violence has occurred, and the police have never had to assist, freeing them up to deal with actual criminals and averting officer-involved shootings.

In San Diego, the Psychiatric Emergency Response Team uses a similar approach, which has also succeeded in preventing many potential officer-involved incidents.

The Nevada County Sheriff’s Office and the county Behavioral Health Department announced a small, somewhat similar local program in October 2020, called the Mobile Crisis Team, staffed by one deputy and one therapy professional. Also, the Grass Valley Police Department and Hospitality House have teamed up to launch a program focused on homeless outreach, mental health crisis intervention, and victim prevention in the city of Grass Valley.

Sadly, Nevada County’s Mobile Crisis Team did not respond in Sage Crawford’s case because one member was reportedly out sick that day.

So here’s the second suggestion: Increased countywide collaboration with existing social service agencies can help address these complex and difficult problems, like it has in many other places. To stop such terrible tragedies, we need to train and deploy readily available street teams with therapy experience and non-lethal, non-violent modalities.

Simply, for people in crisis, let’s send crisis counselors, not cops.

To do that, we’ll need more cross-sector partnerships with local non-profit charitable organizations experienced in dealing with these issues. We’ll need more de-escalation training across the board. We’ll need officers educated in evidence-based tactics who can back off and immediately call in mental health specialists when they face someone in obvious crisis.

Sounds expensive, you say? In fact, this proven approach saves money and lives because it eliminates those multi-million dollar wrongful death settlements we taxpayers usually end up underwriting.

Accomplishing all this requires a profound cultural change within our agencies and systems, and a melding of cultures across departments. But once we shift to a more empathic, social work-centered approach, it will allow everyone, as the old police slogan says, to “go home safe.”

David Langness lives in Alta Sierra. A nationally-known expert on homelessness, he co-founded Homeless Health Care Los Angeles, one of the largest Skid Row agencies in the U.S., and served on its board of directors for 25 years.

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