Reflections on Mitrice Richardson case

Today I wrote up and posted on Charley the disappearance of Mitrice Richardson, a very controversial case which I wrote about some months ago. She’s been missing under unusual circumstances since September 2009.

A quick rundown:

Mitrice, a 24-year-old black recent college graduate, was arrested at a restaurant for failing to pay her bill. This in spite of $2,000 in her bank account. People at the restaurant said she’d been talking about things that didn’t make any sense, claiming to be from Mars, etc., and the restaurant owner called the cops because he was concerned about her as much as anything else. The police found a small amount of marijuana in her car and arrested her for drug possession and defrauding an innkeeper. According to them, she was calm and polite and appeared to be quite sane while she was in their custody. She passed a field sobriety test, too.

A few hours later, they let her go. It was the middle of the night by then. They had impounded her car with her purse and cell phone inside it. Mitrice was unfamiliar with the area and had no money, and the buses weren’t running that time of night. The police claim they offered to let her stay till morning, but she said she wanted to go. She walked out and vanished off the face of the earth. Subsequently, mental health experts studied her journals and reports of her behavior just before her disappearance and they think she was suffering from some kind of nervous breakdown, possibly bipolar disorder.

Mitrice’s family has been up in arms and actually sued the police department, claiming they were negligent and caused her disappearance and probable death, and then tried to cover it up. According to the Richardson family, the police knew or should have known that something was wrong with Mitrice and they should have held her until she could get a psychiatric evaluation. The police have responded that (A) Regardless of what the restaurant people saw, the officers themselves did not observe any oddness in Mitrice’s behavior (B) She is an adult, was sober and appeared to be able to look after herself, and they have a legal obligation to let arrestees go as soon as possible and (C) Terrible as her disappearance is, there is no evidence that she’s dead.

Assuming that everyone involved is telling some version of the truth…I don’t know. I can see both sides of this. Obviously, hindsight being 20/20, the cops should have behaved differently. I can certainly see why Mitrice’s family is angry. On the other hand, if the officers didn’t see anything wrong with Mitrice, would they have really been on firm legal ground holding her for a psych eval based on what some third parties saw? Remember, she had no history of mental illness before, no criminal record, was a very high-achieving woman by all accounts. As for allegations that racism or homophobia (Mitrice is a lesbian) influenced the law enforcement’s behavior, I am not in a position to judge that.

I am reminded of an incident in my own life that had some similarities to the Mitrice Richardson situation. It happened like this:

I quit school when I was thirteen years old and was registered as a homeschooled student, to keep the truant officers off my back. The following year, at fourteen, I began taking classes at Ohio State and thus I got my education, but for the year in between I was left largely to my own devices. I was very isolated at the time and suffering from severe depression which went unnoticed and untreated by my parents. I spent a lot of time going on very long bike rides. Sometimes I’d ride like fifty miles in a day, through the countryside. It was one of the few things that brought me any pleasure.

I get lost really easily, unfortunately, and when I do get lost I tend to get upset. This is more likely to happen (both getting lost and getting upset about it) when I’m sleep-deprived. One day, having not slept at all the night before, I went on a long bike ride and wound up hopelessly lost, some 25 miles or so from home and going in the wrong direction. I spent an hour or two trying to get my bearings, getting more and more panicky. Then I decided to stop at a random house (I was out in farm country, not in town, btw) and ask for directions. By then I was crying.

A woman answered the door and found a slightly hysterical girl on her stoop. I was crying and trying to explain my problem, and perhaps she was the excitable type, I don’t know, but a severe communication problem developed, the end result being that the woman called 911 and said a strange girl had showed up at her house and didn’t appear to know who or what she was, and was acting crazy, so could someone please come and help her? I was like “WHAT?” Then I was thinking to myself: okay, calm down, and do it fast. And I did. A sheriff’s deputy showed up like ten minutes later and found me, white-faced but no longer crying. I opened the door to him and said, first thing: “She’s overreacting. I’m fine.”

He asked me a few questions: What was my name? How old was I? Why wasn’t I in school? I told him about being a homeschooler. Where were my parents? At work. Why was I so upset? I was just lost, that’s all, and got kind of freaked out. Was I running away from home? Of course not; I would not use a bicycle to run away from home. Okay, then, should he call my father or mother? No, I did not want to bother them over this non-emergency. Okay, then, how could he of assistance? Would I like directions? Would I like a ride? I told him I would take the ride. He put my bike in the back of his cruiser and drove me towards home. We didn’t talk much. I asked him to drop me off outside of town, because I didn’t want the neighbors to see me with the police and start up the rumor mill. He said okay. He dropped me off about half a mile from my house. I rode my bicycle home, let myself in and went to bed. I don’t think I ever told my parents about it, or anyone, at the time. I had no one to tell.

As far as I know, the cop made no effort to verify any of the information I gave him. He’d didn’t ask to see ID. (At thirteen, of course, I didn’t have any.) He didn’t ask for my exact address. I think he asked for my parents’ names, but not where they worked. I don’t believe he called any of the local schools to find out if they were missing anyone. When he let me out of the car he immediately turned around and headed back where he’d come from, didn’t bother to watch me head the rest of the way home. He didn’t call my house later that night to find out if I was okay. Presumably he just wanted to get me out of his hair and get back to doing whatever real law enforcement duties he had. And I didn’t want to be in his company any longer than I had to, either. I have no doubt that, if I had simply asked for directions and told him I could see myself all the way home, he would have provided them and then left me where I was.

It could have been like this: suppose I had disappeared somehow, never made it home. Then you would have had a situation with a cop who was called to assist a possibly mentally ill girl who was out in the middle of nowhere on a school day, a tiny girl who said she was thirteen but looked younger, and rather than take her to a doctor or try to get hold of her parents, drove her off to another spot also in the middle of nowhere and let her off, without bothering to even try to verify her identity. Negligence! Huge lawsuit! The blogosphere (not that there was much of one back then, but you know what I mean) would have been up in arms.

Or it could have been like this: the cop, either out of genuine concern or just in ass-covering mode, decides to detain me. He takes me to the police station and either makes me wait around in the office or something, or actually takes me to the holding tank at juvy. There’s a big hassle trying to get hold of my parents. After two hours or more, finally one or both of them would have arrived to collect me. (They both work pretty far from home, and in the kind of jobs where you can’t just drop everything and rush out in a minute.) Perhaps while I was waiting they would have had a doctor talk to me and make sure I wasn’t actually suffering from amnesia (thereby having to present a shrink’s bill for my parents to pay). Then I would be supremely pissed off and going on about violating my rights and they ruined my day, and my parent(s) would be supremely pissed off about being inconvenienced and having to come get me, and probably my mom would have done a lot of yelling, and we would have gone home. Then for weeks after that, Mom would have complained to anyone who would listen about the police bothering me and wasting everyone’s time when they should have been out catching criminals, and my siblings would find out and have another reason to make fun of me. On the plus side, perhaps Mom would have gone out and gotten me a GPS or at least a map or something.

All’s well ends well, in this case because the police simply were all “hands off” and decided to leave well enough alone. Much like they did in Mitrice’s situation — but it obviously didn’t end well for her, or for her family, or for the police. You’re kind of damned if you do, damned if you don’t. You just have to hope luck goes your way and the situation turns out okay.

6 thoughts on “Reflections on Mitrice Richardson case

  1. danielle March 26, 2010 / 4:50 pm

    Police called Matrice’s family but NO ONE would come get her!! The family is responsible too..why didn’t a family member get her? Why didn’t the family tell police she was having mental issues? If the family didn’t know how were the police to know?
    ….She left (or tried to leave) the restaurant w/out paying.
    IF she had stayed at the police station, the family could have then said, “the cops kept her there overnight for no reason…”
    I hope she is okay and in a shelter somewhere, but no crime or negliect was committed. There are so many ways of looking at this incident, but the famliy needs to accept it’s responsiblity too and not put every thing on the police or restaurant witnesses.

    • Meaghan March 27, 2010 / 4:22 pm

      I agree with you Danielle but just to be a pedant I’d like to point out that:

      1. Her mom did finally come to get her at like five in the morning, several hours too late.
      2. I think her family didn’t realize about the mental issues until after the fact. It’s like, out of the blue someone tries to kill himself and, now that you think of it, he had seemed kind of down lately…

  2. mary carney March 26, 2010 / 8:51 pm

    Danielle, You couldn’t have said it better. While it is a tragedy, and I hope for a positive resolution, you have expressed my thoughts pretty completely.

  3. Carol in VA March 27, 2010 / 3:46 pm

    I agree with all of the above.

  4. Ruth March 28, 2010 / 6:19 am

    My husband is an officer and I am a social worker so we have some experience in mental health in the state of Ohio. If a person is not suicidal or homicidal, there isn’t much anyone can do to get them help unless they are willing to accept it. If the police didn’t consider her a threat to herself or others, they would not be able to detain her for a mental health consult. If she was a threat, she would be transported by EMS or the police to the local hospital. The hospital social worker (or other staff) would assess the person and situation then contact the public mental health agency to do a consult. In some cases I think the hospital social worker can pink slip. It would be a violation of civil rights to detain a person against their will…..definate lawsuit material. Seems like I could have said that without writing a book:)

  5. Medea January 15, 2017 / 5:57 pm

    It is very sad. Having mental health problems it is something that terrify me that I could be let to myself in a situation where I cant take the good decisions for myself. Someone who is ill or in crisis can refuse help they absolutely need. That is why the law is wrong in those situations.

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