Friday night, a little before 7pm, 42-year-old Robert David O’Connell walked into the 76 Station on Puyallup Avenue a few blocks away from Portland Ave. He’d recently been diagnosed with a mental illness. He’d also been put on leave from his place of work. In his pocket, he had a revolver. He decided to purchase a knife from the 76 Station. After this he walked around outside. Someone, perhaps the clerk, called the police because they thought he was behaving strangely. This was likely due to the fact that he had stopped taking his medication for some reason.
Two Tacoma police officers arrived in a patrol car. They saw him hanging around a phone booth by the gas station. As they approached him, one of them asked that he take his hands out of his pockets. When he did, he pulled out the revolver and began firing. One shot hit the patrol car. He fired two other shots, but it’s unknown what, if anything they hit.
The two police officers returned fire, striking Robert O’Connell multiple times. When the fire department arrived, he was already dead. While there was initial and unsubstantiated speculation that these events happened differently, both the evidence and most witness statements seem to back up this version of events. Witnesses say they heard a couple of shots followed by ‘a bunch’ of more shots. Any speculation that Robert didn’t have a gun can be disproven by the bullet hole in the police car. I have no doubt that whatever investigation as done will rule this shooting justified.
However, just because the two police officers responding to the scene were in a situation where they had to use lethal force, this doesn’t make it any less a tragedy. Robert O’Connell had friends, a family, and a job. At some point, he snapped. There’s talk that perhaps this was ‘suicide by cop’. It’s possible. We’ll never know for sure.
Mental illness is a tricky thing. It’s not something you can usually see. What the two police officers encountered Friday night was a man who pulled out a gun and started firing. What happened next took only a few seconds. There was no way to know that he was mentally ill and even if he did, that does not negate the fact that he was firing a gun at them.
It’s likely that if Robert had taken his medication, this tragedy would not have happened. Robert would still be alive and two Tacoma cops would have had just another Friday night on the east side of Tacoma. My thoughts go out to Robert’s friends and family and to those of the two police officers.
- Jack Cameron