Defensive gun use tragically demonstrates need for real mental health reform

Defensive gun use tragically demonstrates need for real mental health reform
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The system failed Kevin Lighthall. The 48-year old man who was shot and killed by a Michigan homeowner after breaking into his home and proclaiming himself to be Satan shouldn’t have been roaming the streets. In fact, he had an active warrant out for his arrest when he was killed. Even worse, police had attempted to take him into custody just hours before Lighthall fatefully entered a stranger’s home, only to be told that there was no room at the jail for the troubled man.

The homeowner who shot and killed Lighthall back in May will not face any charges, with Clare County Prosecutor Michelle Ambrozaitis announcing a few days ago that the individual was justified in shooting and killing the intruder. That’s the right call, and I’m glad it didn’t take months on end for the prosecutor to reach that decision. But as I was reading the details of the last hours of Lighthall’s life, it struck me that Lighthall never should have been able to break into that home in the first place.

About 2 a.m. on May 5, Clare police responded to 911 calls of a man wandering around Rosewood Manor Apartments claiming he was “the State” and “owned the place.” Police determined the man in question was Lighthall, who had been asked to leave a unit by its resident.

Police first encountered Lighthall in the complex’s lobby. He told them he was “the owner of the place” and identified himself as “Satan,” Ambrozaitis wrote. Lighthall was not compliant with officers’ directions and returned to the unit he had been staying in.

Police then spoke with the unit’s resident, who told them Lighthall had been acting odd and scaring other tenants. They soon determined Lighthall was wanted on a warrant for failing to appear in court, but jail staff told them they could not house him, Ambrozaitis wrote.

Officers left the scene, only to be dispatched to a house in the 1100 block of McEwan Street at 6:08 a.m. after a woman called 911 to say her husband was holding an intruder at gunpoint.

Why could the jail not accept someone who wanted on an outstanding warrant? Was it full up? Did staff need to reserve the space for a more serious offender? What was the issue here?

But also, why didn’t the officers take Lighthall in for a mental health evaluation? Like every other state in the nation, Michigan has a civil commitment law for seriously mentally ill individuals who pose a danger to themselves or others. Why wasn’t Lighthall, who was calling himself “Satan” and refusing to comply with officers, not taken to the nearest hospital where a doctor could check him out? Instead, the police just left after they learned they couldn’t take him to jail.

Four hours later they encountered him again, this time after he broke into a stranger’s home.

Police arrived at the house and looked through a window to see Lighthall, recognizable from the clothes he was still wearing from earlier that morning, standing in the kitchen. When the first officer to arrive tried talking with Lighthall, the latter cursed at him and reiterated he was Satan, Ambrozaitis wrote.

More officers arrived and tried getting Lighthall to come outside. Eventually, Chief David Saad entered the house and Lighthall charged the male homeowner, who in turn fired three shots at him.

One shot struck Lighthall in the center of his chest; the other, through his abdomen.

Police announced their presence to the homeowner, who unloaded his gun and set it on the floor.

Though officers attempted to render aid to Lighthall, he succumbed to his wounds. Autopsy results showed Lighthall had recently ingested methamphetamine and marijuana, Ambrozaitis wrote.

Without a doubt Lighthall made some fundamentally bad decisions that night, but if our criminal justice and mental health systems were working as we like to think they are he wouldn’t have died that night. He either would have been taken to jail or a hospital for an evaluation, but either way he would have been under direct supervision while he was in the middle of this drug-induced or amplified break with reality. The system failed Kevin Lighthall, just as it failed the homeowner, who I’m sure is forever changed by what he had to do to protect himself and his family.

It also failed Lighthall’s family as well.

Lighthall was the father of four sons. His mother, Ruth Lighthall, previously spoke with MLive and detailed her son’s battle with mental illness, saying he had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.

The disorder includes delusions, hallucinations, and disorganized thinking, with symptoms generally starting in the mid- to late 20s, according to The Mayo Clinic.

She said her son’s mental health went on a marked decline after his father’s May 2017 death from cancer.

“Kevin just went into this… just acting not normal,” Ruth Lighthall said. “He was talking in ways that made no sense to anybody. It just got progressively worse where you couldn’t carry on a conversation with him. He lived in a different world. He talked in rhymes, riddles, and codes that didn’t make sense to anybody but him.

“His dad could always seem to reach and understand him,” she continued. “When he died, he just didn’t ever seem to be what anybody would say was ‘normal’ again.”

I’m glad the homeowner isn’t facing charges here, but I’m angry that he was ever put in that situation to begin with and I’m incredibly saddened for both families. It didn’t have to be this way. It didn’t have to end this way. But because politicians prefer to offer soundbite solutions based on what polls well instead of shoring up the foundational institutions of our civil society, we’re wasting time talking about things like “red flag” laws instead of making sure that individuals like Kevin Whitehall get the help they need before they become a danger to themselves or others.