Could tragedy have been averted?

Sep. 19, 2013 @ 07:49 PM

There is much we don’t yet know about the tragic chain of events that led to the death Tuesday evening of Derek Walker.

We do know that Walker was a 26-year-old man with a solid job and what a friend described at a Wednesday night vigil as “that infectious smile, a loving heart and a beautiful spirit.”

We also know he posted a gut-wrenching, angry, despairing message on his Facebook page Tuesday.

“I give up,” he wrote. “I know I’m a dead man walking. I hope there is a God that he allows the devil to kill me right now (because) there is no reason for me to live right now.”

A few hours later, he was in the middle of downtown Durham, near the iconic Major the bull in the CCB Plaza, waving a gun and rebuffing efforts by a crisis intervention officer and other Durham police officers. They tried, in the words of Police Chief Jose Lopez, to “talk him down from his apparently excited state.”

After an hour-long standoff, police said he pointed a gun at the officers. One fired, bringing down the distraught Walker. Shortly thereafter, he died at a hospital.

Perhaps nothing could have prevented that outcome. We’d like to think otherwise, that we can learn from this tragic event.

It’s important to say, once again, there is much we don’t know. The State Bureau of Investigation will, as it routinely does, examine the police’s handling of the case and the decision to fire on Walker.

Police already are under sharp scrutiny in some quarters for their fatal shooting of Jose Ocampo during a stabbing call July 27. Accounts of witnesses and police differ sharply in their description and assessment of that incident.

Tuesday’s certainly appeared more clear-cut. Walker had a gun, he was in an unstable state, officers clearly were at risk.

Still, we must ask: Could it have been avoided. We know – and stress – that real-life is not a television drama, where it’s easy to land the expert shot to dislodge a gun or for a preternaturally wise officer to offer just the right words to calm an armed and angry man.

In real life, as any officer knows, there is no rewind, no replay, no second take. You have adrenalin-soaked seconds to make a decision, take action. In this case, not just officers but civilians in a busy area were at risk.

If we look for fault or lessons, we must start far before the events of Tuesday afternoon. Why was our mental health system unable to connect with or to help this tormented soul? Did the courts dispense justice with even-handedness or was he, as his note suggested, the victim of judicial misjudgment?

Derek Walker may, at least for a few despairing moments Tuesday, have wanted to die.

The question won’t recede: Did he have to?

Could we – courts, counselors, cops, colleagues, society – have done more to prevent it?

Perhaps not. But those questions deserve to be asked and candidly answered.

There will, we do know, be a next time.