Outrage builds over mentally ill man shot by off-duty cop at hospital

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Handout// Kent Hernandez

In the middle of a mental health episode last Thursday night, 26-year old University of Houston student Alan Pean had the foresight to drive himself to a nearby hospital to get treatment. But instead of getting the mental health treatment he sought, he ended up in the intensive care unit getting treated for a gunshot wound to the chest.

After stepping into the St. Joseph Medical Center, a second episode struck. Two off-duty Houston Police Department officers, who were working separate jobs as hospital security guards, responded. The three of them reportedly had a violent struggle.

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During the bout, one of the officers fired a single shot, hitting Pean in the chest. Pean is facing two counts of aggravated assault on a public servant for the incident, the Houston Police Department told Fusion.

These preliminary facts of the case have been met with anger from friends and family of Pean, as well as mental health professionals around the country.

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A joint statement about the case from doctors and medical students has amassed over 1,700 signatures. "As doctors and medical students, as nurses and care partners, we are trained in how to safely restrain and tranquilize patients, no matter how aggressive, or irritable, or anxious, or threatening they may be," it reads. "Never, never, never is it appropriate for a patient seeking care, to have their life threatened in our arms."

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Pean has regained consciousness and is stabilizing.

"For this to have happened to our brother, it's just incomprehensible and it's just terrible," brother Christian Pean told a local CBS affiliate. The family has hired high-profile attorney Mark O'Mara, who got George Zimmerman acquitted from the shooting of Trayvon Martin, to represent them.

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According to the Houston Police Department, the off-duty officers attempted to subdue Pean, and one deployed a Taser on him.

In a statement issued just after the shooting, the Houston Police Department described the incident as follows:

Officers Ortega and Law were working extra jobs as security at St. Joseph Medical Center at the above address when they were summoned to the eighth floor to help nurses subdue a combative patient.  Once the officers arrived, the patient continued to refuse to comply with the nurses and officers' demands.  The patient suddenly physically assaulted Officer Ortega, striking him in the head, causing a laceration.  At that time, Officer Law deployed his conducted energy device, which had no apparent effect on the suspect who continued to assault the officers.  Officer Ortega, fearing for his and his partner's safety, then discharged his duty weapon, striking the suspect one time.

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Both officers were given three days of administrative leave after the incident, the department told Fusion. Both reportedly were given medical treatment for wounds sustained during the struggle.

The department's description of Pean as "combative," and as a "suspect" in particular has drawn the ire of mental-health professionals following the case.

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"We stand in outrage for every time he is referred to as 'combative' without sub-clause or context, we stand in outrage for every time he is called a 'suspect' instead of a patient, we stand in outrage for every time he, one empty-handed, help-seeking man, is painted as a threat to two officers, able bodied and armed, in a hospital," continues the joint statement mentioned above.

A quarter of the people who have been shot and killed by police in the first half of this year were "in the throes of mental or emotional crisis", found an analysis by the Washington Post. Several cases in which people have been shot and killed by officers have happened during the very moments when the individuals or their families were seeking to get them treatment for their conditions.

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In Miami Gardens, Fl., 25-year-old Lavall Hall was shot and killed by an officer in the street after his mother called the police to help readmit him into the mental health hospital he had just been released from. “Why did they take my child’s life when I called for help?” his mother asked at the time. A police dashcam video that was later released in that case showed his mother pleading for officers not to hurt her child just moments before the shooting. That case is still open, and a wrongful death lawsuit against the city has been filed by the family.

Separately, in Dallas, a police body cam video released this year showed last year's police shooting of Jason Harrison, whose mother called the authorities to help get him mental health treatment. Only 13 seconds pass in the video before an officer fired a fatal shot into Harrison, with his mother only a few steps away. A grand jury neglected to indict the officer involved in the shooting in April. The family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit.

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On Sunday night, a video of Pean was posted online, shortly after he regained consciousness.

"I love you all, thank you for praying for me. It's made a huge difference, and I can't wait to hug each and every one of you guys," Pean says, fighting back tears.

Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.

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