The person on the other side of Treva Smith’s cellphone one Wednesday evening last April asked a simple question: “Did you hear about Bill?”
The call came a day after Vancouver police shot and killed her nephew, William Abbe. A bystander filmed the encounter, which then spread on Facebook. Smith watched once, then called her husband into the living room to watch together.
“It took me a while to make sense of it,” she said, as they broadcast it onto the television inside their forested home in rural Washington County, Oregon.
Abbe, disheveled in a long black coat, paced near a parking lot alongside a busy Vancouver street. He gripped a metal bar. A handful of Vancouver police officers arrayed around him, guns drawn. Finally, as he paced, he walked toward one officer. Three officers fired.
“This can’t be happening,” Smith recalled thinking.
Abbe became the first person killed by Vancouver police in 2020, a deadly year for people with behavioral health problems in the city. The police were involved in three shootings, and all three involved individuals had diagnosed mental illnesses.
Two people – Abbe and a man named Andrew Williams – died. The third is alive, but now paralyzed below the waist and unsure if he’ll walk again.
An analysis by OPB shows a greater proportion of recent deadly force instances in Vancouver involve people experiencing mental health crises. The analysis found at least nine of the 18 people shot at since 2011 showed signs of heightened behavioral distress during their encounters with police.
And the problem is potentially getting worse. Since 2019, that number is five out of seven.
“Any time a police officer is put in a deadly force encounter that results in the loss of life — it is a tragedy,” Vancouver police spokesperson Kim Kapp said in response to the findings. “It is never the mindset of a law enforcement officer to use deadly force and that incident often haunts an officer for the rest of their life.”
Like many cities, Vancouver has taken efforts to partner police with specialists trained to defuse tense situations – and help people access treatment. But to families, some who never considered themselves reformists, those efforts aren’t enough.
Mental health and police killings
Estranged, it had been years since Smith and her husband, Chris, last saw Abbe. They still recognized him immediately. His pacing in front of a police officer was a familiar performance to them.
Abbe had been in and out of their lives for years. Once a music-loving kid who struggled in school, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia in his adult years. He got by as a handyman, but a defiant streak made it hard for him to report to a boss.
That defiance appeared at times when he rebounded into their lives. He could be pushy, such as a time he tried to keep a trailer illegally parked at his mother’s apartment complex. When the Smiths argued with him, he paced.
It’s a defensive mechanism, they said. He could never admit he was wrong. Sometimes, like when Chris confronted him about the trailer, he would hide. That day with Vancouver police, he had nowhere to hide.
“His pacing hits – he doesn’t know what to do,” Treva said. “As I saw it taking place, I saw Bill being Bill.”
Before police arrived, Abbe had reportedly hit another man with a sharpened metal bar. Footage captured after that shows officers attempted to use a Taser on him, but he thwarts it by putting on another coat.
The footage doesn’t capture what is said between Abbe and the officers, but police later told investigators that Abbe said to kill him.
The Smiths said they believe he drew a line in the sand. Abbe had been arrested before, they noted, and upon release discovered his shopping cart of belongings pilfered. He feared losing his stuff again, they said.
“He didn’t know how to get out of it,” Treva said. “He used the only thing he knew: his temper.”
Abbe’s death became the first by Vancouver Police Department in 2020, but he’s part of a broader pattern – both locally and nationally – where police encounters with people experiencing mental health crises are, on average, deadlier.
Kim Mosolf, of Disability Rights Washington, said the force used in Vancouver is “upsetting, but not shocking.”
“It is echoed in national data and we should not be surprised by it, given how we have long underfunded systems of treatment and support,” she said. “As a society, we are not meeting behavioral needs of many people, but instead waiting for them to fall into crisis before we react.”
There is no centralized tracking across jurisdictions of use of force against people with behavioral problems. So, Mosolf said, such data is difficult to compare with other municipalities. The work doesn’t happen very often, and is often led by news organizations, she said.
OPB’s analysis reviewed thousands of pages of investigative records and interviewed family members to detail how many people injured or killed by Vancouver police officers either had a diagnosed illness or — prior to any police involvement — showed signs of extreme mental distress.
Five out of the nine counted were white, two were Latino, one was Chuukese and one was identified by family as white, Black and Native American.
Police shootings were three times more deadly when involving a person in crisis, OPB’s analysis shows. Of the nine with behavioral health problems, six died by police gunfire, one died by suicide and two survived. Of the other nine, seven survived.
Of the 18 people shot at, seven were known to have experienced homelessness recently. OPB was unable to verify the mental health history for three people who had recently experienced homelessness.
Armed – but dangerous?
Police reports show those in crisis more often carried a weapon or appeared to carry a weapon. One carried a bat, Abbe carried a sharpened metal bar, two carried a knife, three carried a replica gun and one – who died by suicide as a police officer shot – had a handgun.
Andrew Williams carried a screwdriver when Vancouver police shot him in October.
His mother, Linda Taylor, said she still can’t reconcile his death. She sat in her apartment in Northwest Portland in January, preparing to pick up her son’s belongings from the Clark County Medical Examiner’s Office in three days.
“It’s too puzzling,” she said. “They’re the one with the gun. They just shoot someone because they think they might have something – or they don’t like the way their eyes look?”
Vancouver police shot Williams, who is part white, Black and Native American, on Oct. 4. He had broken into his off-and-on girlfriend’s apartment to retrieve cigarettes, records show. In her interview with police, she said he wasn’t usually violent – but he had become increasingly erratic.
After a reportedly brutal fight with the family, which left him and others bloodied, Williams encountered Officer Rotha Yong, a Vancouver officer who had contacted him recently after he had called 911.
Yong told investigators she commanded him to stop, and planned to detain him for domestic violence. He refused. She saw a screwdriver in his hand.
“The look on his face, he had some wide, crazy eyes and it was like – I felt like a target lock,” she told investigators. After she fired a Taser, Yong said Williams charged her and she backpedaled. Then she and another officer, Brandon Riedel, shot him.
Taylor, 63, said her son’s previous interactions showed he needed help. By that point in his life, he’d served more than a decade in jail, was diagnosed as clinically depressed, and had been unable to find housing at times.
Andrea Williams, Williams’ sister who lives across the hall from their mother, agreed.
“They need, like, a social worker or something to train them or something like that so they can spot mental illness or an episode,” she said.
Health services and Vancouver police
Like many cities, Vancouver deploys a mobile crisis team to work alongside police to get people access to treatment, keep them out of jail and out of the emergency room.
Still, officials say it’s hard to find the right balance between calls that demand police response versus a specialist.
“The police are still learning to use this new system and new idea, so there’s a huge learning curve for both our team and the police department to learn how to work together,” said Adam Kravitz, a peer support specialist who helps lead the program.
A former addict and formerly homeless, Kravitz said he’s familiar with police using force against people in crisis. An independent audit of the police department last summer found a third of people upon whom force is used had an indication of mental health issues.
Kapp, the Vancouver police spokeswoman, said officers are being asked “more and more” to solve mental health crises.
“There is not an easy solution. We are hopeful the (crisis team) will provide more options than a pure law enforcement response,” she said. She added that 90% of officers have received crisis intervention training. “We are continually looking to improve on how we respond to all calls for service ... in a way that reduces use of force and provides people with the actual resources they need.”
Overall, Kravitz believes the crisis team and police partnership can succeed.
“They’re figuring out where and when would be appropriate to use us,” he said.
In fact, the crisis team spent almost 20 minutes on the scene of Vancouver’s third shooting last year, records show.
Irving Diaz Rodriguez, 23, has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and had a history of violent crime, records show. On Thanksgiving Day, he allegedly threw water at his grandmother, attacked his father and damaged the house they all shared. After police arrived that evening, his grandmother barricaded herself in a room.
He made threats to police as they arrived, records show. When the mobile crisis team arrived, his disposition changed. An officer that night told investigators that Diaz Rodriguez became “a totally different person.”
“Very polite, uh, very concise – he tells them he’s OK, doesn’t need to talk with them, doesn’t need mental health help and that if he does he would call them,” Officer Ryne Briley said. “So at that point, they don’t really have much to go with, so they back away from the house. … Their job is done.”
Sgt. Eric Jennings told investigators police had to enforce a domestic assault charge.
“(The crisis team) simply said he was alert, he could answer questions, he didn’t want to go to the hospital, he didn’t seem to think there was any problem and that, essentially, he wasn’t going to come out and talk with police,” Jennings said. “I explained to the mental health workers at that point that we actually have a situation where we couldn’t just walk away from this.”
After the crisis team left the scene, police moved to arrest. They confronted Diaz Rodriguez in his home. He carried a bat. They fired less-lethal munitions multiple times. Briley, the officer who noted how different Diaz Rodriguez acted with crisis workers, now reported a different scene.
“Irving is very upset, screaming, yelling that he’s not coming outside, we’re not coming inside, and is smashing up the house,” he noted.
Vancouver police said Diaz Rodriguez eventually swung at their heads. As he swung, Briley shot him.
After a police shooting
Diaz Rodriguez survived. He remains at a rehabilitation clinic, paralyzed from the waist down. In an interview, he said he’s hopeful he will someday walk again.
“It’s just scary being a paraplegic,” he said. “I’m guessing I might, maybe, sometime walk again because my legs are twitching. I heard – before I was shot – that that’s good news. "
He did not want to talk specifically about what occurred on Thanksgiving. Diaz Rodriguez denied fault. He said he does have a history of hearing voices, and that he does not like police. His family did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Meanwhile, Abbe’s and Williams’ families said they are trying to move on with their lives. While they acknowledge how their family members struggled, both place blame squarely on Vancouver police. Dating back to 2011, every shooting by a Vancouver police officer has been deemed justified.
“I don’t believe that Bill was a threat to them,” Chris Smith said. “These police officers were not in control. They were worked up and they were ready to shoot. … Showing up with a gang of people with guns did not de-escalate the situation.”
Taylor said she never thought her son would be one to get shot by police, like those that have drawn headlines across the country.
“Then it happens to your own family,” she said. “Then you’re really asking, in shock, ‘what happened?’”
Taylor said neither she nor her daughter, who both live in the same low-income housing complex, could afford a funeral. One of Williams’ ex-girlfriends paid for him to be cremated.
Treva Smith asked officers if the city of Vancouver will help bury Abbe, she said, but they declined.
“The city doesn’t help, even though the city police killed him. There’s no offer of assistance for taking care of the remains of a person they’ve taken their lives from,” she said.
Abbe’s and Williams’ families both said they either did not have hope for a case or the money to challenge Vancouver Police Department actions in court.