On the evening of May 5, a petite 56-year-old woman walked down Main Street holding a loaded Mossberg shotgun. In her fanny pack was a Pathfinder .22-caliber pistol, 84 rounds of ammunition and a silver case containing methamphetamine. She was babbling about a race war.
What happened next feels almost inevitable.
On Friday, nearly four months later, San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe released a detailed report of the investigation into Sandra Harmon’s death. Two Sheriff’s deputies shot the Humboldt County woman eight times that night. She was declared dead en route to Stanford Hospital.
The shooting by law enforcement officers in Half Moon Bay was both similar in some ways to other high-publicity incidents in recent years and entirely different. Harmon was intoxicated. She suffered from mental health issues. She was heavily armed. Her encounter with authorities started amid confusion and was punctuated by split seconds of violent chaos.
Sandra Harmon was not an obvious victim of systemic racism. By all accounts she was uncooperative. Her friend and the only witness not carrying a gun that night suggested to investigators that she intended “suicide by cop” to finally snuff out the demons she carried inside her.
Wagstaffe writes that deputies had little choice that night — that you can’t negotiate with someone who is shooting at you. That is why society should consider a thousand ways to address the problems confronted by people like Harmon before they are locked in a gun battle with police.
Let’s start with guns. Please. Finally. America has less than 5 percent of the world’s population but by one estimate we own 42 percent of the guns in private hands. We haven’t armed the “well-regulated militia” referenced in the U.S. Constitution; we’ve instead put guns in the hands of an untold number of people, including too many like Harmon, a registered gun owner who happened to have potentially fatal doses of meth and amphetamine coursing through her veins that fateful night. Until we better regulate gun ownership, Americans will be in the bull’s-eye.
Let’s get help for people like Harmon, who carried medication to stave off depression. About 7 percent of Americans are clinically depressed. They are not more likely to commit violence to others, but they are more likely to harm themselves. We must remove the stigma associated with mental health in a country where as much as 20 percent of the citizenry struggles with it. It’s a matter of compassion and safety.
Let’s start holding law enforcement accountable for its actions. The deputies who shot Harmon were faced with wrenching split-second decisions and an armed, intoxicated suspect who by all accounts fired first. Their use of deadly force was legal under current state law and easily understood. But questions remain. The first deputy to fire turned off his body camera before doing so. His explanation that he thought the incident was over simply strains credulity. They also should better explain the need for handcuffs after shooting a suspect eight times and rendering her breathless. And we should change a law that essentially allows any police shooting as long as the officer can say he felt threatened.
Finally, let’s stop reducing complicated crime scenes to oversimplified social media posts. The first comment after we posted our story on Facebook was a “Blue Lives Matter” flag. Most fatal confrontations between cops and citizens are not black and white — nor blue for that matter. They involve shades of gray. Honest work to protect us all from gun violence will require more nuance than we seem capable of at this terrible moment in our history.
— Clay Lambert