Trial Begins: Mother Called 911 For Help, Police Fatally Shot Her Son

Chicago police car
Bill Healy / WBEZ
Chicago police car
Bill Healy / WBEZ

Trial Begins: Mother Called 911 For Help, Police Fatally Shot Her Son

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Opening statements are expected Tuesday in a Cook County civil case brought by a mother whose son was fatally shot by police after she called 911 for help.

Pamela Anderson claims in 2015, Chicago police needlessly shot her son, James Anderson, who had a diagnosis of schizophrenia and was in need of help. Police records, however, say Anderson was armed and police shot after trying to use a taser. The case gets at the heart of an issue that has plagued Chicago and other cities: how police respond to people in mental health crisis.

According to phone records obtained by WBEZ, Pamela Anderson called 911 on Sept. 25, 2015 and told the operator she needed help getting her son, who was having a mental health crisis, to the hospital.

The operator asked if he was violent. “He’s cursing and stuff, talking about he what is going to do,” Pamela Anderson answered.

“Well, cursing is not violent,” the operator replied.

“But, yes, he is acting like he is, yes,” Anderson said.

Anderson told WBEZ that previously 911 dispatchers had told her that if her son wasn’t being dangerous there wasn’t really anything they could do.

“I needed the help that I needed for my child,” she explained.

The operator asked if her son had a weapon and the mother said her son had a box cutter in his pocket. “But he is not going to use it. You don’t need to come here with no guns or nothing,” Anderson said on the recording.

The operator told Anderson police were on their way but what they did once they arrived is less clear.

Court documents filed by Anderson say her son was unarmed when he came out of his room and officers shot without warning. But police reports tell a different story: that James Anderson had at least one box cutter, or knife, and he refused to drop it. They say they tried a taser, but it had no effect and they fired.

The city’s law department would not comment, citing pending litigation.

Anderson said she wished she had never called police.

“I don’t have trust in them anymore,” Anderson said. “I know there’s good ones and I know there’s bad ones. But right now in my heart I don’t [trust them].”

Mental health experts and city officials have been wrestling with how the city should respond to mental health emergencies. Some advocates have pushed for alternatives to police. In 2018, 911 dispatchers in Chicago identified an average of about 150 mental health calls a day. And by one estimate from the Washington Post, about a quarter of all police shootings nationally involve a person in mental distress.

A spokesman for the city’s law department refused to comment on the case.

Shannon Heffernan is a criminal justice reporter for WBEZ. Follow her at @shannon_h.