All sides agree on what happened: Robert Christen, age 37, was shot and killed in Mora, Minnesota on Wednesday, September 30, 2015.
Was he shot and killed "by Minnesota police?" We're not entirely sure why you'd put it that way.
Everyone agrees that Christen was shot and killed by Shana [LAST NAME WITHHELD], a Kanabec County sheriff’s deputy. It's also agreed, by all concerned, that Christen was unarmed.
As such, the Washington Post's Fatal Force site lists Christen as one of the six unarmed people who were shot and killed by police officers in Minnesota since the start of 2015.
For those who wish to evaluate our current "journalism of the saints," the circumstances of Christen's death may well prove instructive. Below, you see the initial online report by WCCO-TV, the CBS affiliate in Minneapolis.
This initial report appeared on October 1, 2015. The report was souced to police authorities, with punditry by one local resident thrown in:
MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — The Kanabec County Sheriff’s Office says a man is dead after he made threats and attacked a deputy in Mora Wednesday.According to the Kanabec County Sheriff’s Office, Christen had threatened to kill someone in a particular home. The deputy sheriff—she was in her second year on the job—reported to the scene and was later attacked by Christen.
Shortly before 9 p.m., Kanabec County Sheriff’s Deputy Shana McIalwain responded to a residence on the 500 block of Watkins Street after a man called and said he intended to kill someone at the address.
Thirty-seven-year-old Robert Sullivan Christen, of Duluth, arrived shortly after the McIalwain arrived. The sheriff’s office says Christen drove up at a high rate of speed and crashed his vehicle into a tree on the front lawn.
Despite being ordered to stop, Christen continued to advance and then attacked McIalwain, repeatedly punching her in the head. She then shot Christen to stop him. He died at the scene.
McIalwain, a one-and-a-half-year veteran of the department, suffered injuries to the forehead and arm in the attack and was treated and released by paramedics. She has been placed on standard administrative leave.
Christen had a prior assault conviction. Investigators are not sure of the relationship between Christen and the homeowner, but they say two children live in the home.
The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension is investigating.
"She then shot Christen to stop him," WCCO reported. Also, an investigation had begun.
The factual claims in this initial report were wholly sourced to Kanabec County authorities. There was no obvious reason to assume that every word in that report was accurate, though of course it could have been.
By the time the investigation was finished, there seemed to be little doubt about what had happened. Everyone seemed to agree about the basic facts of the case. The only question that remained was this:
Could something else have been done?
What did the investigation reveal? For starters, we'll recall a lyric from the widely-recorded song, A Tramp On the Street:
As it turned out, Robert Christen was indeed "some mother's darlin'." He had indeed been "some mother's son."
That mother agreed as to the facts of the case, as you'll see below. This might also be said of Christen:
He had once been a fullback for the University of Minnesota's Golden Gophers. We'll guess that he was bigger and stronger than the officer who shot and killed him that night, but we've seen no official statistics to that effect.
Remember, this was an investigation into the shooting death of an unarmed man. What did the investigation reveal? For that, we direct you to a poignant news report by Kirsten Faurie in the Kanabec County Times.
Faurie's report appeared on March 3, 2016. The investigation was now complete. As she started, Faurie reported the basics:
FAURIE (3/3/16): Five months after the fatal shooting of a man by a Kanabec County Sheriff’s Office deputy, the county attorney determined the deputy was justified in her use of deadly force and therefore no criminal charges will be filed against her.So far, Faurie's report is quite sketchy. As her report continued, she continually referred to Christen on a first-name basis.
Kanabec County Attorney Barbara McFadden made the determination Feb. 19, shortly after the MN Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) concluded its investigation of the incident. The investigation revealed the man, 37-year-old Robert S. Christen, had a history of mental illness and was under the influence of cocaine at the time of the shooting.
She also quoted Christen's mother at length. Under the subheading, "Suicide by Cop," she described some of the basics:
FAURIE: On Sept. 30, 2015, at approximately 8:45 p.m. Rob made a 9-1-1 call to report a “possible crime” and stated he was going to kill a person at a home on Watkins Street, Mora where Rob’s girlfriend, Juanita Lietz, and her two children lived.Should the deputy have fired her weapon? Was there something else she should have done instead? We have no experience or expertise judging such tragic questions.
According to a letter from the county attorney’s office, Deputy Shanna McIalwain was dispatched to the home and spoke with Lietz and another adult who were at the residence. The second adult left with the two children while McIalwain and Lietz stayed at the home to wait for Rob to arrive.
As more detail emerged about Rob’s violent threats from dispatch and from Lietz who had been receiving text messages from Rob, McIalwain called for backup. Moments after, McIalwain saw Rob’s car come flying around the corner, squealing the tires and honking the horn. The car came over the curb and into the yard toward the front of the house stopping as it ran into some bushes.
McIalwain stepped out of the home and was standing on the landing when Rob got out of the car and began to rush toward her. McIalwain drew her handgun and ordered Rob to stop. Instead, he approached her, pushed away her hands and immediately began punching her in the head. After striking her three times, Rob took a temporary step back either by choice or by loss of balance.
McIalwain reported that at that point she was becoming dizzy and felt she was losing consciousness. Out of fear that she could pass out and be beaten to death, shot with her own weapon or the residents of the home harmed, McIalwain fired her weapon at Rob six times, missing with the first shot but striking him five times. When EMTs arrived they provided several minutes of medical care then pronounced Rob dead at the scene.
As she continued, Faurie reported that Christen had marijuana and cocaine in his system at the time of his death. She also quoted a statement by McFadden—a statement in which the county attorney seemed to misstate one aspect of the facts of the case, at least as Faurie had reported them.
That said, Faurie also began to quote Pam Christen, the mother of the deceased. Here again, Pam Christen was referred to on a first-name basis.
“He was very sick,” Pam Christen said of her son. “My husband and I basically believe this was suicide by cop.”
Rob Christen had been somebody's darling. In some detail, Faurie proceeded to quote Pam Christen as she told the tale.
We include Faurie's sub-heading:
FAURIE: A long struggleThis was an example of hometown, first-name reporting. Mora's population is something less than 4000. It lies some 65 miles from the Twin Cities. The population of Kanabec County is more like 16,000.
Five months after her son’s death, Pam harbors no anger against the police. In fact, she expressed sympathy for McIalwain. “I want it very clear that we hold no ill will against the police officer. She was put in a terrible position and she did what she had to do,” she said.
Rob’s family said he had a long history of mental illness and was receiving treatment. Pam said the events of Sept. 30 show Rob had not been taking his prescribed medication and that he had slipped into a manic episode.
Rob was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when he was 25 years old. In the 12 years since his diagnosis to his death, Pam said she had seen her son hospitalized 50-60 times, each time only at the peak of a crisis. She said her family was even advised by a social worker for Rob to tell hospitals or the police that he was going to kill himself in order to be admitted.
“It takes a crisis to get any help,” she said. Pam recalled many times that Rob would call the police on himself. Threatening to kill someone or kill himself was the surest way to make sure he was admitted to a hospital.
“When he was not sick, he was a very loving and wonderful person,” said Pam. “He was such a wonderful son.”
Lietz shared a collection of photos that showed the kind and loving side of Rob. Just months before his death, Rob was a groomsman in his friend’s wedding. Pictures also show Rob playing happily with Lietz’s family at Paul Bunyan Land and with his favorite dog, Casper.
But his constant struggles with mental illness took their toll. “He just didn’t want to be sick anymore,” said Lietz.
Faurie's report continues from there. She quotes the Kanabex County sheriff commending the deputy sheriff for her service that night.
“It was a tragic event that ended terribly,” the sheriff is quoted saying.
The sheriff and Pam Christen are each quoted further as they discuss the shortcomings of the mental health services which had been available to Rob Christen. They each discuss the need to treat mental health issues outside a criminal context.
“We need to get people the help they need and jails are not the place for that,” the sheriff said.
Faurie had composed a lengthy small-town news report. Her report could have been a launchpad for a discussion of some major social issues.
At the upper ends of our mainstream press, few such extended discussions occur. At present, the journalism of the saints is perhaps crowding out some such discussions and coverage.
According to the Fatal Force site, police officers in Minnesota have shot and killed six unarmed person since the start of 2015.
Robert Christen was one of the six. The basic facts in the other five cases may all be quite different.
That said, Wesley Lowery cited this event right at the start of his recent high-profile essay in The Atlantic. Tomorrow, we'll revisit, and review, his presentation of this case. His presentation might be said to be an example of "the journalism of the saints."
We won't be saying that such journalism is right or wrong. We do think it's worth considering the way this event was presented to The Atlantic's occasionally story-fed readers.
Tomorrow: "A gruesome cycle"
The fuller lyrics: Reading Faurie's report, we recalled these widely-recorded lyrics:
He was some mother's darlin', he was some mother's sonThe first three lines seem appropriate here. The gravamen of the fourth line was perhaps implied elsewhere.
Once he was fair and once he was young
And some mother rocked him, her darlin' to sleep
But they left him to die like a tramp on the street