By Kathryn Dahlstedt
This past year, I’ve read articles about the jail death of Bill Williams, a 59-year-old man who suffered with mental illness, who along with his family, struggled to get help in a broken health care system, specifically concerning mental health. I know of this sad story firsthand, because my career has been in the medical field and as Bill Williams’ sister, I was involved in his care as power of attorney, along with his wife. We fought for him to get the proper care and most of the time it felt like an uphill battle.
In the nightmarish fog of the first several months of the investigation, I asked the lead detective if the jail staff had experience in dealing with mental illness. He stated that the majority of the population they deal with have mental health issues, which is not surprising since it has been a continuing social problem across the country. However, when I made a written request about required training for personnel dealing with this vulnerable population, I never received a response. How painful to find out after his death, that there had been a bulletin put out to the hospitals that my brother “might be” escalating, yet law enforcement was not notified. But then, why not just listen to the family’s panicked 911 calls for help several days prior to his death?
Our family appreciated the compassionate letter published on Sept. 1, by psychiatrist Thomas Greisamer, who stated, “The description of Mr. Williams … made it clear he was suffering from extreme psychotic agitation, which is a medical emergency; instead of being Tased and handcuffed, he should have received emergency medical care.” This accurate, professional assessment has given us some comfort, but what has added to our grief have been newspaper articles where parts of the story are out of context and left other facts out, presenting an incomplete report.
1. Our family was told that the arresting officers were unaware of Bill’s mental health condition, but we later learned he was picked up at the entrance to his apartment, a building well known in the community to be housing for the Compass Mental Health program. It had been a breakthrough for us to finally get supportive housing for Bill in recent months.
2. One newspaper article stated my brother had “no significant criminal record.” Just state the truth; Bill Williams had no criminal record.
3. An article from Aug. 25 reported police were called to my brother’s home and his wife told them he had punched her in the face. It sound like he was an abusive husband, but he was in an escalating manic state at the time, unaware of what he was doing. He adored his wife and had never hit her in over 30 years of marriage. The reason she told police she was struck was so they would take him to the hospital for a 72 hour hold until he got stabilized. He felt terrible when he was told what had happened, apologized profusely and went willingly to inpatient treatment.
4. A more recent article said Bill may have died of a heart attack after suffering “a form of mania, that follows severe physical agitation…” and then continued with a definition; “combined with violent or combative behavior,” which sounds as if it is describing my brother’s behavior. Yet, the Prosecuting Attorney Mark Roe, wrote that Bill was “strenuously resisting, but did not try to punch or hurt the officers.” Mr. Roe’s assessment is accurate, because I know exactly what my brother was doing. He was flailing around, trying to protect himself. He was terrified.
5. It was reported that Bill turned blue after being Tased the first time. Wouldn’t it be logical to assume his body was in a physically vulnerable condition, especially at his age? Why would he be tased again, especially when he was already handcuffed? Newspaper reports never made it clear that he was Tased while handcuffed. This is only part of the story, describing a portion of the pain the family has felt surrounding Bill Williams’ death. After the suffering he endured with his illness, my brother should never have had to die this way. The mistreatment of a mentally ill man does not stay in the headlines and is, in fact, rationalized, even when it ends in his death. The majority of people with mental illness are not violent, but are instead the victims of abuse, prejudice, homelessness and alienation.
Mental illness was only part of what defined Bill. He was a gentle and kind-hearted soul. He loved music and drumming and dancing when he was well and most of all, his family. He had an appointment with a guidance counselor in hopes of getting a job to contribute to their income, but in the meantime he did whatever he could to help out. His wife told me that when he helped her care for her elderly stepdad, who had end stage dementia, Bill was the only person that could coax him to take a shower. He should have been able to sit with his grandchildren on his lap for a while longer, and his children should have been able to have their father many more years. He was immeasurably understanding and humble, and although he was constantly judged by others, he did not judge them. He should still be here with us, supported by those who loved him best, and it has been a great and difficult loss.
Kathryn Dahlstedt lives in Bow.