What Would You Do?

This past week in Columbus there was a tragic story that makes you think about how you would respond if you were confronted with a very difficult situation.

At midnight last Sunday night, a naked man knocked on the door of a West Side home and stood on the porch asking for help.  At the time, the outside temperature was around 20 degrees.  The resident did not let the man in the house, but immediately called police.  The police arrived less than 15 minutes later, talked to the resident, and then looked for the naked man around the house and in the neighborhood but could not find him.  The next morning, the resident noticed blood spots and footprints in the snow and followed them to a backyard shed where the naked man’s body was found.  He apparently died of hypothermia.  It turns out that the man was mentally ill, having been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, and felt frightened when his clothes were on and “free” when he was naked.

The tragic incident has prompted significant commentary on the Columbus Dispatch website — see here and here — about whether people should have done things differently.  Should the resident have let the man inside his home?  Should the resident have left blankets or clothes on the porch for the naked man to use?  Should neighbors have gone to look for the man?  Was the police search sufficient, in a situation where the frigid temperatures would make the man’s nakedness a matter of life and death?  Should the canine unit or additional police officers have been summoned under the circumstances?

It is hard for me to fault the homeowner.  Under the circumstances, his first obligation is to his family.  It is fair to infer that any person who is naked after midnight in freezing temperatures may be mentally disturbed, and you simply don’t open the door to a potentially disturbed person who might harm your family members.  Calling the police immediately seems like the appropriate response.  I’m not sure I would have thought of putting out blankets or clothing under the unnerving circumstances, before the man disappeared.

I think it also is easy to say that the police should have done more when a death occurs under these kinds of circumstances.  But were the police supposed to conduct a search of every home, garage, and other potential place of shelter on the block?  Wasn’t it reasonable for the police to think that a naked man in distress would be visible and actively seeking help?  Having conducted a search of the immediate area and surrounding neighborhood, the police could reasonably conclude that the man had returned home or found shelter, or that the incident was a bizarre prank that had concluded.

A tragic death such as this one invites Monday morning quarterbacking.  In this case, I’m not sure the criticisms are truly warranted.

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