Two police encounters during crisis: One compassionate, the other less so.
The first time Kevin Fischer noticed that his son Dominique was acting strangely was during Thanksgiving, more than a decade ago.
“He was rambling about taking over the world, and God working for him, and it was all of these grandiose thoughts,” Fischer recalled.
Dominique’s parents took him to the hospital. At the time, he was home on break from the Cleveland-area university he attended. His parents figured he had started experimenting with drugs in college, but a test at the hospital didn’t find any in his system. Instead, doctors admitted Dominique to the psychiatric ward to evaluate his mental health. Dominique was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and later with bipolar disorder.
Until that point, Dominique had almost never troubled his parents. Kevin said he was a skilled athlete, a good student, and a natural when it came to making conversion and connection. But mental illness could turn that mild manner toward combativeness and belligerence.
Due, in part, to those kinds of behaviors, people with mental illness are more likely to face arrest than the general population, and when they do, those encounters are far more likely to end in injuries or fatalities.
In some cases, police encounters can also be a pathway to receiving medical attention. Dominique had both kinds of experiences with law enforcement: One in which police took a compassionate approach, and another in which he was arrested. Those encounters shaped the rest of Dominique's life, and Kevin’s too.
“We were very blessed”
Finding the right regimen of medication and therapy helped mitigate the most challenging symptoms for Dominique, and doctors suggested he resume the life he was living before it was disrupted by his diagnosis. Soon, Dominique returned to college in Ohio – although Kevin insisted his son check in with him regularly both over the phone and in-person.
Even so, there were moments when Dominique struggled with his mental health. During one such instance, Dominique was walking to campus when he saw a police car at a traffic stop. While the officers were engaged with the driver of the car they had pulled over, Dominique opened the door of their patrol car and sat down inside. “That’s not normal behavior,” Kevin said. He felt grateful that officers saw his son’s behavior not as a threat or an offense, but an appeal for help.
“We were very blessed that the officers treated him very professionally,” Kevin said, recalling that the officers called him to explain the situation and their next steps, noting that Dominique wasn’t in trouble. Kevin was in Grand Rapids at the time and he remembered getting the call. “‘We think he's having a psychiatric problem,’” one of the officers told him over the phone. “‘We've taken him to a local hospital for treatment.’” The officer was forthcoming with information, telling Kevin that they had handcuffed Dominique for his own safety as well as theirs during the ride to the hospital.
Once Kevin made the five-hour drive to the Cleveland area, he found one of the officers waiting for him in the hospital. It was an experience that made him feel the officers cared for his son’s wellbeing.
About a year later, Dominique had a very different encounter with police.
“We didn’t know where he was.”
In October of 2008, Dominique went to a Cleveland Browns game. According to Kevin, his son was impelled to do so by delusional thoughts which bid him to get there at 5 o'clock in the morning, even though the game wasn’t going to be played until 16 hours later.
Dominique hadn’t brought his wallet with him, and, according to Kevin, “At some point he got hungry and took a hamburger or a hot dog off a tailgater’s grill.” That prompted a call to the police. Dominique fled from the officers, because, he later told his father, he felt afraid of them. He was in a moment of a crisis, but instead of getting care, he was arrested and charged with resisting arrest and disorderly conduct.
His family, however, wouldn’t find that out until days later. When Kevin didn’t hear from Dominique, he started calling around to his son’s friends. No one had seen him. So Kevin, who had previously lived in Ohio, called a friend of his who was an Ohio state trooper.
“[I] said, Hey, can you check with Cleveland and see if, you know, check with the Cleveland hospitals and see if … somebody fitting his description has been admitted to the hospital,” Kevin recalled. But a day went by with no information about Dominique’s whereabouts.
The next day, “I asked them to check the jails for somebody who met my son's description. And by the third day,” Kevin said, biting back tears.
“I'd even asked him to check the morgues for John Does because we didn't know where he was.”
After four days in the Cuyahoga County Jail, Dominique finally got a cellmate’s mother to call Kevin. When Kevin got to the jail, he found that his son had a split lip from his encounter with the police.
“The first thing he said to me was, ‘Dad, they took my shoes,’” Kevin recalled. He tried to tell his son that maybe police had taken the laces to keep him from hurting himself, but Dominique told Kevin that wasn’t what happened: “He said, ‘No, when the officer put me in the back of the squad car, he told me those were some nice shoes and he stole my tennis shoes.’”
We reached out to Cleveland Police about this incident, but they did not offer a comment.
Kevin says his son was put in jail for behavior he couldn’t help. Being without his medication and unable to talk to people who knew him was hard on Dominique. Kevin said that things began to take a hard turn after that incident.
“He stopped taking his medication and started self-medicating with marijuana and alcohol,” Kevin recalled. In 2010, Dominique took his own life.
Resources are available
As a Black man, Kevin knows there can be fear around police – but he thinks most officers are trying to do the best they can. Even so, he wants people to know that a call to the police is inviting an armed response into a situation – which won’t always end well.
One alternative Kevin found out about early on was crisis centers where he could take Dominique during challenging moments.
“I know there were times that my son felt like I was betraying his trust by taking him there,” he said, “but I did it out of love and I did it because I didn't want to see him get hurt.”
In one instance, Kevin stopped at a police precinct for help to calm Dominique down. The officer gave his son options: Ride with your father, or get driven in a patrol car. Dominique stayed with Kevin but the officer followed them to make sure they were able to get there. It was helpful to have the force of officers behind him, without that force being used on his son.
That assistance worked in the moment, but Kevin said there is a lot he wishes he knew during the few years his son struggled with mental illness. It’s been more than a decade since Dominique’s death. Kevin has dedicated much of that time to getting the word out about mental health resources.
“Part of my passion for this work now is to make the public aware of what resources are available so they can avoid these tragic situations, so we can improve the quality of life for people who are living with mental illness so we don't have to remove them from their homes or they don't end up hurt,” he noted.
Kevin serves as the Michigan executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. He also knows firsthand that police are often on the front lines of mental health crises. So, he began helping to train officers to take a compassionate response and now serves as the board president of Crisis Intervention Training, International.
One of his major goals is to help officers understand the difference between someone acting in a way that is criminal, and someone in the midst of a crisis.
If you or someone you know has thoughts of harming themselves, call 9-8-8 to get support from trained professionals.