Tag: Raymond Zack

The Paralysis Of Liability

Here is another one of those posts, like the Charity one I wrote a couple of weeks back, where the rightness of the position lies in how well it is articulated, either side can be right.

Last week a mentally ill man calmly walked into the ocean and in front of a number of people including both police and fire personal, slowly drowned himself, with no one lifting a finger to stop him:

We can glean a little bit of background from this:

Depressed and despondent, Raymond Zack stepped into the water off Robert Crown Memorial State Beach on Memorial Day and let the cold and tide slowly end his life as police and firefighters watched from the shore.

His stepmother — who rushed to the beach searching for Zack because she feared for his safety — said she cannot understand why no officer or firefighter waded into the water to save the 52-year-old man.

“They were there two hours,” Dolores Berry, 84, said about the emergency personnel. “Two long hours. There were kids playing and police and firefighters standing around. Nobody did a thing.”

In this morning’s paper they had a time line of the events. From the time of the first call, by the step mom who was on the beach, until when the police arrived was 5 minutes, at that point Raymond was out up to his waist in the surf. The fire crew arrived 5 minutes after that. Essentially, the emergency people at the scene got all the particulars from the step mom, that this was a suicide attempt from a mentally unstable man.

Before we go farther, my position on suicide is basically that people should be allowed to do whatever they want with themselves. I would install a diving board on the Golden Gate Bridge to facilitate the process. Compassion dictates that we have programs in place and trained folks available for those that need help, mental illness can be just as debilitating as physical illness, but I don’t buy the notion that all suicide victims are mentally ill. Some people just live crappy lives and if they want to end their miserable existence, that is their business, who am I to demand that they continue unabated in their misery?

But back to Raymond, the police excuse for doing nothing was this, Raymond was attempting to kill himself and was mentally ill, they did know if he was on medication so any attempt at rescue could have been met with both hostility and combat, rescuing someone who did not want to be rescued would have resulted in a fighting match in the water.

The fire guys’ excuse for not effecting a rescue was that they were not trained in this area, I guess no fire guy knows how to swim.

They called the Coast Guard, the agency who is directly responsible for water safety (as an aside, when a jumper swan dives off the Golden Gate, the Coast Guard, which has boats docked directly under neath the bridge, is the agency that responds) replied that the water in that area was too shallow for their boats.

So what ultimately transpired was a PR nightmare, capable safety officers standing by on the beach, doing nothing, while a distressed man slowly succumbs to the waves and drowns. And even then, after Raymond was face down in the water, apparently dead, it took a a civilian passerby to go into the surf and retrieve the lifeless body, how embarrassing.

Some other things to consider, the fire agency did have a water rescue program in place in the passed but, due to budget cuts, had to discontinue the program. Other liability factors, if a police of fire guy went in to effect a rescue and got hurt, a civil case good be made that since they were not adequately trained in this area, the state would be liable.

Part of being a good safety officer (good anything, really) is being able to think outside the box. What immediately came to mind to me was that I would have called the local animal control officer, there is always one on duty and they all carry tranq. rifles. I would have waded out there in to the surf and shot this guy with a tranq. dart, once he went woozy I would have secured him (if it took more than one officer, so be it) then dragged him back to shore.

But risks are part of the job:

What is a typical rescue? Each rescue is unique, and whether a person is trying to commit suicide should not be the criterion for doing whatever is necessary to stop it from happening. Police and firefighters face similar
situations every day. Risks are involved. Police and firefighters are paid to ensure our safety and, as they remind the public regularly, they must take risks to do their jobs.


You can bet that the city of Alameda will have to pay the step mom some big bucks from the civil suit that will ultimately ensue.

When I worked with safety officers in the passed, a good tenet to live by was this ,”It is always better to get sued over doing something, then doing nothing”, and these guys basically did nothing.

So there you are, is the city liable? Were these officers (both police and fire) derelict? Could there have been a better outcome to this? And does society as a whole have an obligation to prevent suicides?