Editor's note: This editorial is reprinted, with permission, from last Thursday's Telegraph of Nashua.
When police are called to respond to a suicidal person, they have an obligation to act. When Hudson police were called to the home of Matthew Banks, they found a tube connected to the tailpipe of his car.
They had evidence he tried to take his own life and had a duty to protect him. Instead, they arrested him on DWI charges. A day later, he finished the job.
Susan Mead, outreach director for the Greater Nashua Mental Health Center, who has been training police officers around the region for several years including officers in Hudson, said it succinctly: "If someone's suicidal, you want to bring them in and have them assessed," Mead said.
When Hudson police were called to Banks' home, they failed to seek the help of a mental health professional.
Hudson police have recently released documents related to their response, but have failed to explain the rationale for their actions.
On April 29, a neighbor spotted a flexible vacuum hose attached to the exhaust pipe of Banks' Ford Explorer and said she threw it in the garbage.
The next day, about 6:30 p.m., the woman walked outside and found Matthew Banks attaching the hose once again and called the police.
Instead of committing a suicidal man to the hospital for care, they charged him with DWI and released him later that night. By the next morning, Banks was found dead with bags over his head.
His widow says police should have done more to keep her husband alive.
The relationship between Janet and Matthew Banks wasn't always a smooth one, and her account differs from what police say on several points. But what's indisputable is Matthew Banks didn't need to die that night. Hudson police had a chance to get him professional help. Whether that failed to happen because police were complacent or because they failed to follow their own policy is difficult to say.
Police refused to discuss any detail of the case out of "respect" to Matthew Banks' family, even though his widow has asked for answers. In an interview on Oct. 2, Hudson Police Chief Jason Lavoie and Capt. Bill Avery declined to talk about how Hudson officers are trained to deal with people who are suicide risks. They refused to release even the department's policies for dealing with suicidal people.
Their policies are public information and to deny the public access to those policies casts aspersions on everything they do. How is the public supposed to trust and evaluate the actions of a police department - in any instance - when police refuse to discuss their protocols?
Two days after the interview, Hudson police produced a report that said Banks' widow, Janet, was given an opportunity to have him involuntarily committed, an option police had themselves. They said she declined.
The death of Matthew Banks confirms that police are increasingly on the front lines of cases where people have demonstrated self-destructive behavior and officers need clear protocols to guide them. Lives can hang in the balance.
Nobody knows what the Hudson police protocols are, or even if they have any. A department of officers sworn to protect and serve should answer those questions, so citizens can evaluate whether the police are doing their job properly. Whether they like it or not, police are accountable to the public under our system of government.
It's unfair to Banks' widow and the people of Hudson for police to avoid accountability out of "respect" for the victim.