Cops Thought It Funny To Use Seriously Mentally Ill Man To Prank Off-Duty Officers


Bellingham, Washington police officers were disciplined by the department for driving a man with mental health issues from the Whatcom Transportation Authority (bus) station to a restaurant in the early hours of Sept. 19, 2019, intending to disrupt a group of off-duty officers in what they called a prank. Photo by Warren Sterling THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

(8-20-20) What could be funnier, four police officers agreed, then to use a severely mentally ill man to pull a prank on fellow officers who’d just finished their shift?

It seemed harmless enough. Their “pawn” was well-known to police having had 1,779 behavioral health contacts with law enforcement that generated a report between Jan. 1, 2019, through Aug. 4, 2020. He was frequently disrupted, yelling to himself, making those around him uncomfortable. One officer call him a “goof.”

Why not pick him up, drive him to a local restaurant, slip him $5 and send him inside to disrupt customers and the off-duty officers?

Although their pawn was disruptive, he thankfully wasn’t arrested or harmed, but news of this prank sparked community outrage in Bellingham, Washington, when it was revealed earlier this month and has caused the community to examine how it treats those with mental illness, according Karen Schilde, a board member of the Snohomish County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, who tipped me off in an email about the escapade.

Ever since George Floyd’s death, I’ve received emails and articles about persons with mental illnesses being abused by correctional officers and/or police officers. I believe and support the majority of our law enforcement officers who have empathy and do their jobs well. They protect us. But these reports about questionable actions by their peers are alarming.

In the last two months, I’ve posted four different blogs about alleged law enforcement abuse of individuals with mental illnesses.

The most egregious: Kimberly Kenny describing how her brother, Patrick, who had a mental illness, was beaten and fatally shot by four police officers in Springfield, Oregon. The city paid a $4.5 million settlement because of those officers’ actions, but none was punished (one was given a medal).

In addition to those blogs, I’ve received a copy of a civil lawsuit filed by California attorney Eva Guo on behalf of Deandre Bolden alleging that four Contra Costa County correctional officers “savagely beat” Bolden when he failed to immediately obey a direct order. He has a severe mental illness and appeared to be confused. One of the officers uttered “derogatory slang terms used against people suffering from mental illnesses” while proceeding to “pummel, knee, kick and beat” Bolden.

Next week,  I will be posting another example out of San Bernardino, Calif., written by a mental health worker who observed abuse.

As a journalist, I was trained to be skeptical but these incidents are similar to abuses that I describe in my book, CRAZY: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness.  During the ten months that I spent inside the Miami detention center, one officer talked openly about how he physically abused psychotic inmates, explaining that even someone who is delusional listens if beaten. A man in my book with a mental illness had his arm broken by Miami Beach police officers because he refused to stop writing graffiti predicting the return of Jesus. Nothing was done.

Sadly, many of these incidents involve law enforcement officers who have undergone Crisis Intervention Team training.

The Prank

Two reporters at The Bellingham Herald exposed what happened Sept. 19, 2019 when officers decided to pull a prank.

According to an account written by Denver Pratt and David Rasbach, a Bellingham police officer heard the department’s dispatcher at 3 a.m. saying that the victim (who has not been identified in the media) had just called 911 asking for the telephone number for a cab company. The officer recognized the name at about the same time he noticed several off-duty officers from the previous shift heading to Shari’s Cafe and Pies. The officer contacted other officers on duty and suggested they pull a prank.

“Headed to Shari’s. Anyone got any good ideas?” he asked.

“Lets drop off (the victim) and give him 5 bucks for a coffee,” another officer responded.

“LOL,” their desk sergeant replied.

“lololol lets do it,” the first officer declared.

“I got a five for that!” a third officer joined in.

The victim at the time had more than 30 documented law enforcement contacts in 2019 for incidents such as indecent exposure, disorderly conduct, property damage and trespassing. (All crimes common to homelessness and mental illness. Indecent exposure generally refers to a homeless person urinating in public.) In addition, the newspaper reported, the victim also had 1,113 behavioral health-related contacts in 2019 that generated a police report.

Local mental health officers and a court liaison were actively trying to help the victim, the paper noted.

One of the officers picked up the victim at a bus station and drove him to Shari’s, parking the squad car out-of-sight but close enough to observe what would happen. Another officer parked nearby to watch.

“The victim got up several times during the 20 or 30 minutes he was in Shari’s and walked around yelling at himself. The employees reportedly told the victim to sit down a couple of times or he would be asked to leave, and at one point the victim went behind the counter and attempted to enter the kitchen area, making the employees uncomfortable. Eventually, the victim was given his food to go and was asked to leave the restaurant. An unrelated customer that was in the restaurant also left Shari’s because of the victim’s actions.”

One officer videoed a short clip of the incident.  One of the officers parked outside “saw the off-duty officers laughing, smirking and acting like they couldn’t believe it was happening.” He sent a message saying, “idk im leaving. dont want to get caught.” Another sent a message saying the incident “would’ve been fun with a hidden camera” which got this reply “all their faces said ‘are you fing kidding me,” in reference to the off-duty officers eating inside.

Bellingham Police Chief David Doll learned of the prank the next morning and immediately ordered an internal affairs investigation.  That probe found the victim “was contacted and transported with no legitimate law enforcement purpose…The only reason for the courtesy transport to Shari’s was to play a prank on the (off-duty) officers.” When interviewed, the victim said he didn’t remember the incident. Chief Doll issued letters of reprimand to all four officers.

“Our department has made great efforts to provide proper services to those who are in mental health crisis,” Doll’s reprimand letter to officers stated. “Your actions on Sept. 19 violate the core values of this department and the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics. They also undermine the public’s trust in our department.”

What happened went unreported until earlier this month when the two Herald reporters wrote about the prank.

Bellingham Mayor Seth Fleetwood said in a statement sent to The Herald Wednesday, Aug. 12, that he learned about the incident for the first time on Monday (Aug. 10), as the incident, investigation and disciplinary actions were completed before he became mayor.

Fleetwood said “this is another opportunity to reflect on our law enforcement culture, review our policies and procedures, and follow through on our commitments to examining and changing systems that are most impactful to people who are marginalized in our community. We need to ask why this happened, and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Some might argue that no one was harmed by the prank, but having police officers use individuals who are severely mentally ill as the butt of jokes dehumanizes them, opens them up to further abuse, and, as the chief stated, undermines public trust.

Hopefully, NAMI’s Karen Schilde and other local advocates can use this episode to educate Bellingham residents about mental illnesses and insure that the victim in this matter gets meaningful help for his illness.

Here is the Birmingham Herald’s story.

Complaint by Attorney Guo on behalf of Deandre Bolden who was allegedly savagely beaten in Contra Costa California jail.

Filed Complaint for Deandre Bolden

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.