The police body-camera footage from the late autumn night when Keaton Larson died is dark. It’s after midnight in Minnesota during a stretch of the year when the nights are especially long. The only light comes from the police officers’ flashlights, which make circles of sidewalk and grass and patchy snow as they walk toward the house.
You can catch just a glimpse of Larson, 22, standing inside the screen door of his family’s Stillwater home. He’s lit up by the flashlights, too.
“Keaton. Police,” one of the officers says. “You’ve got a knife.”
It’s hard to see the knife in one of the videos. But the police can see it. And they keep telling him to put it down.
“Drop the knife. Keaton, drop the knife,” the first two officers to arrive tell him.
Their talking turns to yelling as he doesn’t respond. “We’re here to help you.”
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“No, I don’t want to live,” Larson eventually replies, his voice breaking.
This exchange unfolded exactly one year ago, moments after Larson’s younger brother called 911. He asked police to check on his brother because he feared Larson might try to kill himself. Larson did end up dying that night, but not by suicide — rather, by a gunshot from police.
What happened to Larson isn’t unique. About 1 in 5 fatal police shootings across the country last year involved a person with mental illness, according to a Washington Post database of police shootings. So far this year, numbers are on track for the same. In Minnesota, out of the 47 people shot and killed by police over roughly the past five years, at least 18 had mental illness.
These figures don’t account for nonfatal police shootings, so the number of violent police encounters between police and people with mental illness may well be higher.
One year after an officer shot and killed Larson, Minnesota is still trying to figure out how police should best handle a person in a mental health crisis. There have been efforts to train officers how to respond, but it’s too early to see how well they’re working.
While prosecutors deemed Larson’s shooting justified and declined to press charges against the officer who shot him, others, including former officers, say his death shouldn’t be tossed off as an unavoidable consequence. They say the tragedy can help teach other cops how these situations can quickly go wrong, and how to better manage them.
The night Larson’s brother called the police to check on him wasn’t the first time his family had been scared about his well-being. His mother, Tessa Andrews, said he’d been diagnosed with major depressive disorder and anxiety several years earlier and had trouble with his mental health since he entered high school.
History of hospitalization
She said in the ninth grade, Larson wanted to kill himself.
“And after that, it seemed like we were always in and out of the hospital,” she said.
She guessed he ended up in the hospital at least six times between the time he was 14 and 20. He’d done day treatments, too, and regular outpatient care with therapists.
High school had been challenging for Larson. He was absent a lot because he was so sick, and that made it hard to keep up, Andrews said. Plus, being depressed and anxious made it tough for him to focus and get his work done.
But he’d graduated, and he’d been planning to go to community college starting in the winter. He wanted to become a math teacher.
Andrews said he often helped his younger half-sister with her math homework. And he had a special bond with his cousin, who is on the autism spectrum and often has a hard time communicating with people.
“Keaton just got him, could understand him, could relate with him,” she said.
In the meantime, Larson was working at the local Fleet Farm to earn money and trying to get his life together. Still, the medications didn’t seem to be working that well, or they had troublesome side effects. The crises seemed to be coming more often.
The night Keaton Larson was killed, his little brother had called 911 because he was worried Larson would kill himself. He was heading over to check on him himself, but thought the police would get there faster.
The dispatcher put out the call, warning of a possible suicide attempt.
“Our complainant stating that [he] might commit suicide, may have already cut his throat,” she said on the radio.
Two officers from Stillwater got there first. First they just tried shouting at him to put down the knife. But by the time two more officers, from Bayport and Oak Park Heights, got there, the Stillwater cops had changed tack. A young officer from Stillwater, Hunter Julien, stopped shouting and started talking, trying to connect to Keaton Larson.
“It gets better. I promise you. I would not lie to you,” Julien said. “You’ve got this, I just need you to drop the knife.”
Then Julien asked, “How old are you, man?”
“Twenty-two,” Larson answered.
“I’m 28,” Julien said. “We’re close to the same age. I want to help you.”
Moments before the shooting
In between promising help, he and his partner kept telling Larson to drop the knife.
By this point, Larson was outside in front of his house, barefoot and wearing a t-shirt and shorts — maybe boxers or pajamas. It’s hard to tell from the video how far from Larson the officers were standing, but in testimony she gave after the shooting, the other Stillwater officer guessed it was 12 or 15 feet.
When Julien asked how he can help, Larson said the only way was to shoot him.
Larson started moving slowly toward the sidewalk. And the officers told him to stop and to drop the knife. He stopped. He was holding a long kitchen knife in his left hand and a utility knife in his right hand.
He threw the utility knife down and switched the kitchen knife to his right hand. Then, suddenly, he dashed into the street. In one of the videos, he circled around. Three of the officers fired their Tasers at him, though the autopsy reports only one barb making contact.
The fourth officer, Julien, wasn’t wearing a body camera that night. But he and his partner later told investigators that he had started backing up, away from Larson, when he fell backwards.
As Larson approached, Julien shot him.
The Washington County Attorney’s Office decided not to file criminal charges against Julien, saying the shooting was justified.
“The officer who ultimately was forced to shoot this man was the one that was trying to de-escalate the situation,” said Fred Fink, the investigator from the county. “And very frankly, I thought he did as good a job as could be expected under the circumstances.”
When things got messy
Experts in police use of force say it’s more complicated. There’s the fact that Keaton Larson was in a mental health crisis and, as is often the cases, police, not mental health workers, are the ones who responded.
And then there’s the knife. Even if the officers were 12 feet away from Larson, he likely wouldn’t have been able to reach them, said Seth Stoughton, a former police officer who is now a law professor at the University of South Carolina.
Stoughton and others who viewed the body-cam footage for MPR News agree things got even messier when Larson started running and Julien fell. They also say it’s hard to armchair quarterback something like this, especially when it’s so dark and some details might not be in view.
“Situations like this are challenging,” Stoughton said. “They are difficult. The officers’ adrenaline is up, and it's difficult to tell anyone in a tense and potentially dangerous situation to act calmly and communicate authentically, but that's exactly why training and policies are so important.”
Julien, the officer who shot Larson, had been on the force for about five years at that point. His record shows that he had lots of training, in subjects from shooting to field sobriety testing — but none in de-escalation or crisis intervention.
New training requirements
In July 2018, just a few months before Larson died, a new law went into effect in Minnesota, requiring police to do additional training in implicit bias, conflict management — and most relevant to this case — crisis intervention and mental health crises. Officers are licensed every three years and the training comes within that cycle, so it’s still too early to know how departments have implemented it.
But advocates are already working with police chiefs from around the state to amend the law and clarify what that training should look like. Their goal is to get the Legislature to change it next session.
There’s also talk of buying tablets for police so they could video-conference in a mental health professional — or let the person in crisis talk to one — even if they can’t be on the scene.
Stoughton said he wants to be clear that the officers were in a tough spot. But he pointed out ways it could have gone differently.
When the officers walked up to the house, the first thing they did was tell Larson, loudly, that he needed to drop the knife. Stoughton said they didn’t necessarily have to.
“Officers should never ignore the knife, but if the knife isn’t a threat to anyone except the subject they’re dealing with, then there’s really no imminent risk to anyone else if they let him keep holding the knife,” he said. “So instead of fixating on the knife and yelling, ‘Drop the knife, drop the knife,’ you try to connect with the person holding the knife. ‘What’s going on tonight? What can we do for you?’”
He said the officers do a better job after that first encounter.
“They did stop yelling, ‘Drop the knife.’ They did take a more conversational approach. They did reduce their volume and change their tone of voice,” Stoughton said.
Still, even there, they could have made a better connection by doing less talking and more listening, he added. Ultimately what officers need to do is connect with the person in crisis to try to defuse the situation and figure out how to get them help, without hurting themselves or anybody else, he said.
They could have also positioned themselves so they were further from Larson and moved backward when he moved forward. But Stoughton said it’s also hard to point to one moment when things went wrong, because sometimes small mistakes can compound themselves.
Julien spoke briefly to MPR News. But he told us, through his chief, that he didn’t want to be interviewed. The chief also declined to comment for this story.
Tessa Andrews, Larson’s mother, is still struggling to come to terms with what happened to her son. She said he didn’t really want to die. And she wished the police could have gotten him what he needed.
“My son didn’t want to kill himself. He was crying for help,” she said. “Someone with self-injurious behaviors for years and years with anxiety and depression … my son was screaming for help.”
This reporting is part of Call to Mind, our MPR initiative to foster new conversations about mental health.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com for a list of additional resources.