Assisted Suicide

Minneapolis officials insist police did everything by the book before Clay Fingerman killed himself. But nobody wants to talk about the shotgun left by his door.

 

On June 13 Erickson read a newspaper story about the death of a mentally ill woman named Barbara Schneider, who was shot by Minneapolis police officers in her apartment. Unlike Clay Fingerman's suicide, Schneider's death was big news; in the view of critics, it was clear evidence that the department's rank and file officers are inadequately equipped to deal with the mentally ill. In the wake of the Schneider shooting, Minneapolis police officials and politicians began speaking publicly about the need for additional training for cops, modeled after progressive programs in cities such as Memphis and San Jose.

For Erickson the public debate over Schneider's death set "bells ringing." If the police department had special crisis teams and better training, he wondered, would Clay Fingerman be alive today? Would the officers who visited his home the first time have taken Fingerman into protective custody? Would they have at least handed Erickson a crisis hotline information card? Would they have confiscated the shotgun? Would they have been able to talk Fingerman out of killing himself? For six months Erickson brooded over these questions, becoming increasingly frustrated while trying to find the answers. His calls to Hazelden were never returned. Requests to meet with city officials met with silence. And efforts to retrieve the official police files were rebuffed, he says, under the pretext that only Fingerman's immediate family and the executor of the estate were entitled to that privilege. (Police spokesman Cyndi Montgomery initially told City Pages that the documents were not part of the public record, but later arranged for the release of a partially redacted version.)

Along the way, though, Erickson found some allies, including Jackie Casey, the executive director of Suicide Awareness/Voices of Education (SAVE), a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that works to raise public awareness of depression and suicide. As she learned more about the case, Casey adopted a critical view of the MPD's actions--both before and after Fingerman's death. The failure of police to confiscate Fingerman's shotgun was the most glaring miscue, she says, but hardly the only error in the cascading series of events that led to his death. To begin with, she contends, the first set of officers who visited Erickson's home should have filed written reports: "It just seems like they didn't take it very seriously. But when somebody calls the police because of a potential suicide risk, it should always be documented. We've got mandated reporting of domestic abuse, and it seems to me we should pursue a similar policy for suicide calls. Especially when a gun is involved. Because when a gun is around, the risk of lethality goes way up."

In April Erickson and Casey wrote to Belton requesting a formal meeting between "key individuals and officials" to discuss Fingerman's suicide. That letter, Erickson says, went unanswered. After Barbara Schneider's death, he became increasingly intent on getting answers and he took his case to city council member Lisa McDonald, in whose ward both the Schneider and Fingerman deaths occurred.

McDonald then arranged for a sit-down in the community building at Bryant Square Park. Among those present at the meeting in late June were Erickson, his neighbor John Early, Jackie Casey, Inspector Christine Morris of the Fifth Precinct, council member McDonald, and the assistant city attorney assigned to the police department, Margaret Culp.

Erickson began by reading a list of prepared questions: Why did police allow Fingerman, whom the medical examiner later determined to be "acutely intoxicated," to drive away after the first call? Why wasn't a police report filed after the first call? Why was the gun brought into Erickson's home? According to Erickson and others who were present at the meeting, very little in the way of specific answers was offered by Assistant City Attorney Culp. (City Pages made three calls to Culp. They were not returned.)

"The lawyer for the police only said there's a lot of legalities associated with police confiscating guns, and that they wouldn't take the gun from the owner because there wasn't a crime," Early says. According to Early, on the day of Fingerman's death he telephoned Inspector Morris with the same questions and got a different answer: "She told me that she didn't have an explanation, but that standard procedure would have been to keep the gun in police custody and return it to the owner at a later date. And she said she couldn't say anything because of the potential for a lawsuit, but that there would be an investigation." Early and Erickson say they were never questioned in connection with any investigation.

Inspector Morris declines to discuss any specifics of the case. "As a citizen it bothers me when government officials say they can't talk about something," she explains. "But we really can't talk about this, partly out of respect for a family that has already suffered a lot, and partly because of the potential for litigation. It was a frustrating meeting--kind of dehumanizing. I felt like a bureaucrat, having to sit there and not be able to talk. I really wish I could have."

Council member McDonald, meanwhile, says she hopes the police department will seriously examine its procedures for dealing with the mentally ill. "Because of this incident, and because of the Schneider incident, I sat down and talked with the police chief [Robert Olson] about the way we respond to these types of crises," she says, adding that her office will press for increased training for rank and file cops. "The short-term goal is, What are we going to do if we have another incident like this?...And the long-term goal is, What are we going to do in the future to try and narrow these incidents down to zero? And I'm going to bird-dog this one. Trust me."

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