Brian’s V.A. councilor Becky Higgins wrote this Op-Ed article in the local newspaper, the Register Guard on April 29, 2015.
Monday, April 27, marked a month since Brian Babb was killed at his home by Eugene police. The Interagency Deadly Use of Force Investigation Team (IDFIT) has given its report on the incident to Lane County District Attorney Alex Gardner, who will determine whether the shooting was justified. Regardless of that decision, the shooting likely could have been avoided.
I was Brian’s therapist. I was on the phone with him until minutes before he was shot dead in the doorway of his home. In this column, I can share the information from the 911 call, which is a public record, and I can share my opinions. Everything else about Babb as my client is privileged, even after his death.
I called 911 on March 30 from my cellphone, reporting that I was a therapist in private practice, I had a client on my office phone who was suicidal, he was a combat veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury (TBI), he had a handgun, and he was not willing to take the clip out of the gun or the round out of the chamber. The 911 operator told me to place my cellphone next to me while I talked with my client on my office landline. The recording, which picked up only my end of the conversation, lasted about 45 minutes. The 911 operator could hear me; I could hear her.
I have worked as a licensed clinical social worker in Eugene for two decades, and have worked with trauma survivors, including veterans with symptoms from military sexual trauma and combat trauma. I provided consultation to the Eugene Vet Center for eight years and worked six years as a trauma therapist for them. While there, I received more than 100 hours of training in trauma work and gave trainings on the same. In my current private practice, more than 50 percent of my clients are veterans. My clients have always been my best educators regarding trauma, and many are struggling deeply with what this incident (the death of a veteran who called for help) means for their own safety.
I can hardly be the one to reassure veterans, given what my call to 911 unleashed. What local veterans need is reassurance, communication and policy change by city officials and the police. In the one month since Brian’s death, we have heard nothing about how such situations can be handled better. Across the country, local officials are acknowledging mistakes or poor practices that need to be fixed to prevent fatal shootings by police.
I called 911 shortly after 5 p.m. on March 30. In addition to the information above, I told the operator that Brian had fired a shot into his floor before calling me “to see how it sounded.” I also reported that he told me he was alone. (Unknown to me, his roommate came home during our conversation.) About 20 minutes into the recorded call, cell coverage dropped. I called back as instructed and asked if help had been sent. The operator said people were on site with more arriving. My call with Brian continued for 25 more minutes.
When I was interviewed by an IDFIT detective, I asked how my information to the 911 operator was used. He said it was forwarded in real time to the “front.” People on the scene had up-to-date information as I was speaking with Brian. I asked if the call was audible. He said they could hear it all.
During the early portion of the recorded call I worked to get Brian to take the clip out of the gun and the bullet out of the chamber. He eventually agreed, which I repeated aloud for the 911 operator. I clarified again later with him that he had unloaded his gun, and repeated it, so that it was clear he was cooperating; 911 heard the progress being made.
There was no indication that things were escalating; in fact, the situation was improving. At no time did I have to pull him back to the phone or back into the conversation. A listener would have no question that we were fully engaged in a back-and-forth conversation. At no time did I perceive Brian to be a threat to anyone other than himself. If he had threatened harm to someone, I am required by law to report that.
Our conversation leading up to being interrupted showed continued progress. I asked Brian what he would suggest to one of his guys (as an officer) if that soldier were feeling badly. I complimented his suggestions, and there was laughter at my end Ñ the kind that indicates shared humor.
Near the very end of the recording, a listener would hear me reminding Brian of the recent past when he was feeling better. I told him he had many options, such as intensive outpatient services, daily appointments with me, or twice-weekly appointments with me as we had done before. Whatever he wished. I offered him an appointment for the next morning at 9 a.m. A listener would have heard me say “great” or “excellent,” indicating his agreement. I was so involved in the conversation that I later realized I had written him into my appointment book, even though I was certain he would be hospitalized.
It was clear that in those 45 minutes our conversation was steady and productive. But we continued to talk and the conversation from my end would indicate he was less emotional and thinking into the future.
Then: A bullhorn and pounding words to the effect “Brian Babb, come out with your hands up.” Just as I realized what was happening, Brian had put down the phone. A listener would hear me calling his name over and over and over, trying to get him to hear my voice and return to the phone. That did not happen. And I can only imagine where his mind may have gone.
The 911 operator told me to hang up the landline, as the police “a crisis negotiator” wished to call him. I hung up the phone as instructed. I told her that he might talk to me, but he was not likely to talk to the police. I asked to be included. I’m pretty sure I begged. She said they would call me, and then said to call them if I had not heard from them in an hour. I told her I would have my cellphone with me. I called back. I never heard from them. I learned the devastating outcome from the news.
The following day, around 2:30 p.m., I was called by the IDFIT detective to an interview. I tried to push the interview out because I was so shaken, but he wanted to meet that day as they wanted to get this “wrapped up.” I reluctantly agreed. I hung up and called an attorney to get clarity on privacy laws following the death of a client. I asked that he convey in writing to the detective what interview limitations would apply due to the privacy laws. That put the interview out a few days.
In the days that followed I kept asking myself: Why would the police bring such an extreme show of military-type force to the home of a combat veteran with PTSD and TBI? Why didn’t they use me instead of going for the bullhorn? Why were they in such a hurry? And I mourned the loss of an amazing man, someone I cared deeply about.
I am obligated to Brian and the many veterans who have seen and trusted me over the years. I owe my current and future clients my promise to do everything I can to see that this never happens again. When I work with clients who are having suicidal thoughts, I contract with them for safety. I have them agree that, if they are in a dark place or thinking of suicide, they will call me, or a hotline, or another agreed-upon person. Brian Babb kept his end of that agreement. He died within one hour of me making the call to 911 for help.
As I said, a month has passed. And one of the things I now realize is that, in fact, I was used by the police. They had the luxury of knowing I was keeping this man calm on the phone, which afforded them time to place snipers, position the armored personnel carrier, bring in a multitude of police cars and, of course, the “crisis negotiator” with the bullhorn. They approached this situation as if Brian was an enemy combatant, instead of a wounded military officer. They knew things were going smoothly for my client, or their entry into the situation would have been very different.
Ironically, just up the highway two weeks earlier, there was an example of how the Oregon State Police/SWAT and the county sheriff handled a much more dangerous situation with no injury or loss of life. A 911 caller reported that a Blue River man was shooting at people from his home (read: homicidal) at about 2 p.m. The state police their SWAT team and Lane County sheriff’s deputies responded.
Police learned the man was having a mental health crisis. The responders did not rush in. They closed Highway 126, and ultimately they took eight hours to engage in and end that situation. No one died, even though the man was armed and had been shooting at people. Reports indicate that the bullhorn and the armored personnel carrier were moved in four hours after the situation began. The juxtaposition between these incidents, two weeks apart, is striking.
I saw Police Chief Pete Kerns on the news explaining that the situation with Babb was unusual, i.e., responding to a suicidal person who had fired a shot (into the floor). He said that this increased the risk to the community; dangerous suicide
calls require a certain protocol. What Kerns didn’t say was that this man was on the phone with his therapist for 45 minutes, including all the time that Eugene police took to set up their response. This is an important omission. I would have stayed on the line for, well, whatever it took.
The Eugene police could have used me to communicate with Brian, to help negotiate his safe exit. They could have had me tell him what was waiting for him outside; I surely did not know. They could have asked for information. They could have just waited, as the state and county did in Blue River. There was no “split-second decision” to be made certainly then. Instead, they turned to startling commands from a bullhorn, inviting a combat vet with PTSD to what? look out his window at an overwhelming show of force? That begs common sense.
If wounded veterans in our community, and suffering people generally, are going to have confidence that police will help them in a crisis situation, rather than kill them, they need to see city officials acknowledging mistakes and taking transparent steps to ensure this kind of thing can’t happen again. Therapists and crisis line workers also need reassurance that if they call 911 to assist a client or a veteran, everything possible will be done to help that person. A tragedy like this cannot be repeated.
Becky Higgins is a licensed clinical social worker in private practice in Eugene. Her practice includes many armed forces veterans.
The published letter can be viewed by clicking here.