No one knows better the danger that a tense circumstance can present than police in the United States. Constantly under pressure to control people who are guaranteed rights that provide them a wide latitude of no control, the scenarios that citizens can present range from the mundane to sheer terror, even for a trained professional. With that thought, we continue to reflect on moments in the history of law enforcement we wish we could get back, the sacrifices of those that have paid the ultimate price on our behalf.
Pawtucket, Rhode Island
Where the Blackstone River meets the Seekonk River, is where you’ll find Pawtucket. A town somewhere between small to mid-sized, the name translates from the Algonquian language as “River Fall.” The falls are what brings the two rivers together, and what made this town a fisherman’s paradise. Casting into the deep river, just south of the falls, and there’s ample chance for you to come away with a decent sized Atlantic Salmon. From the 18th century, all the way to today, Pawtucket remains a major industrial town, producing goods for markets across the globe. From ship building, to bulk lace, it’s probably not too far from the truth to suggest everything has been built or made in Pawtucket, at one point in time. The Pawtucket Red Sox, AAA farm team to the Boston Red Sox, has played at McCoy Stadium since 1970, though they’ll be moving to a different stadium in town soon. The franchise has been around since 1896, maintaining its relationship with Boston the entire time. It’s a fair observation that Pawtucket is a blue-collar town with white-collar charm. But even a hard-working town comes with indecency, as we’ll soon find out.
Detective Lieutenant Thomas Truesdale & Detective Emil A. Newberg
On June 30, 1958, Detective Lieutenant Thomas Truesdale, a 37-year veteran of the Pawtucket Police Department was doing what almost any other police officer has to do on their birthday, work. His partner, Detective Emil Newberg, a 30-year veteran of the department, were working the evening shift in Pawtucket, and handling the ‘laundry list’ of call referrals detectives would handle in those days. Parole violators with contraband, juveniles involved in violent crime, burglary follow-ups, all in a day’s work, on someone’s birthday. They then responded as primary officers to a most terrifying call. Robert Genereux, a 35-year-old man with mental health issues, had been holding his elderly mother hostage at gunpoint that day in their low-income residence, when he decided to take aim at a wall opposing a vacant residence. He fired two rounds, which caught the attention of neighbors, who then alerted police. In the aftermath of the shots, Genereux collected his Luger brand pistol, and barricaded himself in the bathroom of the residence. His mother took the opportunity to escape, and notify police herself. On scene, the two Detectives tried to reason with Genereux through the door. Genereux, who has voluntarily admitted himself to a local mental hospital previously, was on a weekend pass when he refused to return, two years prior to the date of this incident. Records would later confirm that he had never presented a danger to anyone else prior to this day, only to himself. What was specifically said between the Detectives and Genereux is not well known, but what is certain is that after a certain point, Genereux stopped communicating, and started shooting through the door. His aim was most likely happenstance, mixed with wild intent. He struck Detective Lieutenant Thomas Truesdale in a lung, and Detective Newberg in the stomach. Both Detectives certainly died agonizing deaths. Over 40 Pawtucket Police personnel took over the residence and neighboring residences to try and get Genereux out peacefully. Officers used firearms to force open the door Genereux was taken into custody, eventually, and he had only minor wounds. What happened to him after his hospitalization is not documented. It is safe to say that in consideration of the era, and his previous mental health issues, he was likely civilly committed for the rest of his life.
For police in the 50’s, confronting mentally ill people at the height of an episode was not exactly new, or uncommon. However, it was a rarity. Today’s law enforcement officer is encountering mentally ill people multiple times a shift. And most likely, detectives are not first responders to such events anymore. One thing is certain from this terrible loss. This incident ended up adding to an already serious discussion about how mentally ill people were being managed at the time, and there were rules added to handling mentally ill people after this event. That part of the story has long since evaporated, but at the time, it was the best way we had to honor the loss of Detective Lieutenant Truesdale, and Detective Newberg. Those rules were not only meant to honor them, but to honor the loss their family incurred. Because collectively in the US, we didn’t want another family to lose someone because a mentally ill person was out free, not medicated, and unchecked. Attitudes on the mentally ill have changed, but the loss has not changed. Detective Newberg left behind a wife and six children. Detective Lieutenant Truesdale left behind a wife, and an unknown number of children. In our attempt to respect the rights of the mentally ill, and trying to empower them to take ownership of their personal situation, we are inadvertently placing countless police officers lives at risk, who we expect to manage incidents with the mentally ill first, before anyone else intervenes, including those with full academic and professional backgrounds, dealing with the mentally ill. Conversely, more officers face civil suits in the aftermath of how they handle mentally ill people, than any other type of situation. This doesn’t make sense. We don’t train police to be mental health experts. And while there is Crisis Intervention Training being offered in many jurisdictions, incidents like the Charleena Lyles in Seattle, Washington this past month, show that even well qualified officers with CIT backgrounds can’t account for everything a mentally ill person will present or act upon in their presence. We can’t continue to let the lessons of the past be forgotten. We owe it to Detective Lieutenant Truesdale and Detective Newberg to remember that they are trained police officers first, and when the situation is literally under control, can revert to passive talking, even helping a mentally ill person realize what is happening, and that their crisis moment doesn’t have to last a lifetime.
In memory of Detective Lieutenant Thomas Truesdale & Detective Emil Anthony Newberg.