(Editor’s note: this story contains a video with graphic violence and explicit language.)
WILMINGTON — A man suffering from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, who also has a history of violent criminal offenses, was involuntarily committed Tuesday evening, after an aggressive struggle with officers that were attempting to apprehend him. Why did the arrest, which followed a standard commitment order, end in violence?
Hiram Farmer, 35, was not being arrested for a crime; law enforcement was acting as a go-between to get Farmer to a mental health facility. But, in the course of his arrest, he ended up kicking and fighting officers who tried to apprehend him, according to a New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office (NHCSO) spokesperson. In the process, Farmer was struck in the head repeatedly by a deputy who, according to law enforcement, he attacked and bit.
RELATED: Video: New Hanover Sheriff’s Office supports deputy’s use of force during involuntary commitment arrest
Though Farmer’s apprehension was issued for medical — not criminal — reasons, it was carried out by several law enforcement officers. No medical professionals were on the scene during Farmer’s arrest.
According to both the Wilmington Police Department (WPD) and NHCSO, inviting medical professionals to assist in arresting individuals who are being involuntarily committed for medical reasons, including those with a history of mental illness, is not standard protocol.
An escalated arrest
Farmer’s mother, Barbara Farmer, requested that the state take custody of her son to protect his well-being, believing him to be a danger to himself or others. According to Farmer, her son suffers from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. She successfully petitioned a judge to sign an order to commit her son to state custody to protect him.
On Tuesday evening, WPD officers were actively searching for Farmer’s son to carry out the commitment, but hadn’t yet arrested him.
Later that evening, WPD responded to a call in the area – unrelated to the Farmer case – and Barbara Farmer flagged down officers, asking them why they hadn’t already taken in her son.
After radioing into the station and learning there was indeed an involuntary commitment order, the officers then located Farmer at a nearby convenience store. But, according to Hiram’s mother, the arrest did not go the way family members had hoped.
Concerned about her son not taking his medication, Farmer said she only asked a judge to grant involuntary commitment orders so he could receive medical attention. But during the arrest, Farmer said she watched her son get tased, thrown to the ground, and punched repeatedly in the head. She also claimed she later learned her son’s arm had been broken during the arrest as well. (Editor’s note: WPD and NHCSO representatives said they had not heard anything about Farmer having a broken arm.)
Now, she’s beginning to regret her decision.
“I feel so bad because I wanted help for him,” she said. “I couldn’t sleep because I felt like it was more my fault that he got beaten by the police officers because I took out the commitment papers.”
WPD tells a different story of the arrest.
In a news release, WPD spokesperson Linda Thompson confirmed the involuntary commitment order for Farmer, said but stated that Farmer attempted to flee when first approached. After a brief foot chase with WPD officers, Farmer assaulted officers who were attempting to restrain him, Thompson said. At some point, he was tased by a WPD officer, the release states.
Thompson added that WPD is consulting body-cam footage as part of an internal review of the incident. NHCSO is also reviewing the actions of its deputies; New Hanover County Sheriff Ed McMahon has seen the video of the incident, and as part of standard policy when force is used, it will be investigated by internal affairs, according to NHCSO Spokesperson Jerry Brewer.
Medical arrest with no medical professionals
The WPD and NHSCO both know Farmer.
Farmer has a lengthy criminal history and has been incarcerated more than ten times over the last fifteen years. He has been convicted of assaulting an officer, assaulting a female, multiple drug-related crimes, possessing a firearm as a felon, and several traffic-related crimes.
Still, when Farmer was arrested on Tuesday afternoon outside Tommy’s Mini Mart, he had not committed a crime.
Having been made aware of Farmer’s mental health issues, and propensity for resisting arrest, could officers have done things differently, or involved a medical professional who could have consulted, or even sedated, Farmer?
When asked why officers choose not to invite a medical professional on the scene, Jennifer Dandron, WPD spokesperson, said doing so would not be in line with local — or state — protocol.
“During [involuntary commitments] all we really are is a transport unit,” she said. “In that case, it’s not practical,” she said.
Dandron pointed to state protocol for involuntarily committing adults, when they are a danger to themselves and others. After a magistrate issues an involuntary commitment order, officers are actually obligated under North Carolina General Statute § 122C-261 to deliver the individual to a physician within 24 hours of an order being issued. No state-level law, or protocol, includes the examination of someone being committed before they are physically transported to the hospital by law enforcement officers.
NHCSO also does not rely on medical professionals during involuntary commitment cases.
Brewer said he couldn’t recall a single time a doctor was called to assist in that process. “Involuntary commitment papers can go from simply walking out and telling the person, ‘Hey, you need to come with me,’ to what happened last night,” Brewer said. “You can’t say it’s going to go down the same way each time.”
More often than not, Brewer said, officers are dealing with the same people. “Unfortunately it is an absolute vicious cycle,” he said.
The same individuals with mental health issues are admitted to the hospital, get treated, go home, go off their medications, and get involuntarily re-admitted all over again, Brewer said. “It’s unfortunate. It really, really is,” he said. “It’s a bad situation.”
When an officer’s safety is compromised, does protocol change?
The video, circulating online now, shows Farmer wrap his leg around a deputy’s body, while four men are on top of him, attempting to hold him down. The sheriff’s deputy who punched Farmer at least three times, said he was being bitten while he was striking him.
Starting with an officer’s mere presence on the scene, Brewer said officers operate on a force continuum, which includes punching. “No one drew a gun,” he said. “If he drew a knife or gun, then that force continuum goes higher.”
When Brewer asked the deputy depicted in the video if he struck Farmer before or after he was bitten, the deputy told him, “During.” Because each interaction differs, an officer’s use of force is evaluated on the basis of reasonable and necessary actions. “Was what he did last night reasonable and necessary?” Brewer asked. “Yes.”
‘It wasn’t supposed to go down like that.’
Farmer’s family members feel differently. Hiram’s brother, Christopher Farmer, filmed the video in question. He said the total amount of officers present, and the officers’ aggressive tactics, was excessive.
“It was uncalled for,” he said. “I think it was a lack of communication. They should have just went up to him and told him what was going on.”
Though Farmer’s mother flagged down officers to take her son into custody, she didn’t agree with the way it happened.
“What we were trying to tell him is he got mental illness, and don’t throw him on the ground like that — that hard –and punch him in the face,” she said. “Why y’all beating him up like that?”
Barbara Farmer said she plans to file a civil suit against the WPD or the two officers who initially arrested her son. Thompson said she wasn’t aware of any complaint from Farmer’s mother. Still, Thompson said WPD would be happy to look into a complaint Hiram Farmer may inquire about. “Her son is the adult,” she said.
Farmer’s brother said he wished the event was handled differently. “It wasn’t supposed to go down like that,” he said.
Watch the video below: Warning video contains explicit language and violence.
Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee at firstname.lastname@example.org