Joshua Barre’s mental health was spiraling out of control before he grabbed two butcher knives and went outside in Tulsa. The 29-year-old black man with bipolar disorder had been off his medication, cycling through depression, anxiety and paranoia. His mother called the Tulsa County sheriff. Officers with the agency’s mental crisis unit, trained in de-escalation techniques, went to Barre’s house three times before their final encounter on June 9, the Associated Press reports. This time, two deputies watched Barre walk down the street, barefoot and shirtless, clutching the knives, but decided not to confront him. They followed him for nearly a mile, until he approached a store where they feared other people could have been in danger if he went in. A deputy tried to subdue Barre with a stun gun, but it had no effect. Fearing for customers’ safety, the deputies and a Tulsa police officer who had arrived as backup opened fire, killing him as he tried to enter.
Barre’s killing prompted an immediate outcry in Tulsa. Three weeks earlier, a white police officer was acquitted in the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man. In 2015, a volunteer sheriff’s deputy fatally shot an unarmed black man in a street. Barre’s death shows how mental health issues challenge even veteran law enforcers trained in de-escalation techniques. About one out of every four people killed in officer-involved shootings has a serious mental illness, says the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which has trained police in crisis intervention in 2,700 communities. The real shame is that officers are the first responders in such situations, said the alliance’s Ron Honberg. “We’re asking police officers … to do the job ideally that trained mental health professionals should be doing,” he said. In Tulsa, Barre’s family and others question why authorities didn’t try less-lethal force far sooner, when officers and bystanders would have been in less danger. The real problem is that many cities depend on police to compensate for a lack of properly-funded mental health programs, said Honberg.