A YOUNG man pulled a knife and threatened me while I was walking on Alki a few years ago. I kept walking and called 911 from the 7-Eleven telephone booth. Three minutes later, a police car pulled up and Seattle Police officer Caryn Lee stepped out.
With all the recent news about police encounters ending in tragedy, I remember my own experience because of a different outcome.
Lee took my information and asked me to drive my car to where it had happened. She said not to get out and requested that I return to the 7-Eleven.
After 15 minutes, I wondered if she had forgotten me so I drove down to the spot again. She was talking to the man. No guns, no Tasers, no clubs, no chokehold. The fellow looked really confused and disheveled. To me he looked scary. Really scary. But she was speaking kindly and respectfully. Two male officers stood quietly, a few feet behind her.
I drove back to the 7-Eleven and waited, wondering what was taking so long. Lee finally returned and told me what had happened. The guy had thought I was going to kill him. He told her that he had only pulled the knife out to defend himself. She asked me if I had made any movements or said anything that could be misinterpreted as aggression. She wasn’t grilling me, just asking politely.
I said no and then she said, as I recall her words, “He seems to be right on the cusp of a psychotic break. He ran out of medication and has been sleeping in the bushes.” She thanked me for calling and said she thought that the man was a danger to himself and others.
We talked a bit more and she said she had to ask me a question: “Do you feel that you have been the victim of a crime?”
I guessed that there was a right answer and a wrong answer but I wasn’t sure what they were. After all, the guy was crazy and he had threatened to stab me. That seemed like a crime to me. I tried to read Lee’s poker face but I got no clue, so I took a shot: “No?”
She smiled and told me that she was not allowed to coach me on the answer but that if I had said yes she would have to take him to jail. He would probably fall into a deep pit. She said that he was tormented by voices and hallucinations. But since I had not been a crime victim, she could take him to Harborview Medical Center where they would evaluate him, clean him up, wash his clothes and feed him. They would be able to hold him for a while and get him back on his meds. At least he would have a chance at sanity. She thanked me again and left. She acted as though I’d done her a big favor.
That’s how it’s supposed to go. Actually, that’s better than I could have hoped for. Lee, who has since retired, answered the call and showed up to help. This individual wasn’t selling cigarettes, as Eric Garner had been when he died from a chokehold in New York. He hadn’t stolen a handful of cigars. He could have gutted me with that knife. But Lee didn’t see him as a miscreant or a criminal. She saw a human being in trouble. He couldn’t have been treated better by his own family. I will remember her example for the rest of my life.
Stefan Ulstein teaches English at Bellevue Christian High School.