Part three of a four-part series
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Patricia and Shawn Sims stared at the body of their dead son. His blue eyes were closed. His unlined face revealed none of the torment of his last days. He looked like a boy dreaming.
Kansas City police had shot and killed Issac Sims, 26, in the garage of his parents’ house a day earlier. His death was a bloody coda to a five-hour standoff that began after officers responded to Shawn’s 911 call.
Father and son had argued the morning of May 25. In frustration, Issac Sims shot several rounds from an AK-47 outside the house. Shawn told the 911 dispatcher that he wanted police to take his son to the Veterans Affairs Medical Center for treatment.
Sims, an Army veteran who deployed twice to Iraq, had battled the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder after moving back to Kansas City last year following his discharge.
He sought in vain to enter an inpatient program at the VA hospital two miles from his parents’ home in the weeks before his death. His erratic behavior near the end of his life exposed a mind still at war.
The first officers on the scene reported hearing shots from inside the brown bungalow on the city’s frayed east side. They ordered Sims to step outside. When he refused to comply, they cleared the neighborhood, summoned the tactical team and surrounded the property.
Officers rejected Shawn’s appeals to stay and shuttled him to department headquarters. Patricia rushed there from a friend’s house when he called her. The couple then waited for hours as the absence of details amplified their confusion and dread.
Late in the afternoon, two officers approached, faces rigid. One said their son was dead. “It was like the air stopped,” Patricia said. “Everything went morbidly silent.”
She and her husband last glimpsed their oldest child and only son inside the Jackson County morgue. They recalled smoothing his hair, kissing his face. His ashen skin felt cold to the touch. “You can’t lose your son without dying inside,” she said. “You don’t get over it.”
Their anguish remains as acute as their disbelief, and in the ensuing months, authorities have disclosed little more about the circumstances of his death.
Police officials claimed that Sims, after holing up in the house and failing to respond to negotiators for hours, opened the garage’s back door and pointed his AK-47 at officers. One or more of them fired the fatal shots.
Violence has punctuated a series of standoffs between police and veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in recent years. The shootings have sharpened scrutiny of how law enforcement treats troubled veterans at a time when delays in VA care, as Sims faced, increase the chances of such encounters.
Ronald Davis directs the office of Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, in Washington, D.C. The Department of Justice program funds a police training course that teaches strategies for defusing confrontations with veterans plagued by combat trauma.
“Law enforcement and the criminal justice system have become the default for dealing with mental health problems in the United States, and we’re seeing that happen with veterans,” Davis said.
Post-traumatic stress disorder afflicts an estimated 20 to 30 percent of the 2.6 million troops who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Most veterans with behavioral health disorders do not commit crimes, and few are involved in armed standoffs with police.
But Sims’ death is not an isolated case. His killing brings into focus the complexities of handling veterans in crisis and raises questions about the militarized tactics of law enforcement.
“A show of force by police may be counterproductive in those situations,” Davis said. “It could trigger thoughts and reactions where the veteran feels like he’s at war again. So there’s a real need for police to understand what the veteran is going through.”
Patricia and Shawn talk about their son as a soldier who returned from Iraq without coming home. The couple had struggled to find him help through the VA. They turned to police out of desperation, hoping he would be rescued from himself. He instead became another casualty of the after-war.
“If I had known what was going to happen,” Shawn said, “I wouldn’t have called the cops. I can’t forgive myself for that.”
‘Control the situation’
Police had previously confronted Issac Sims two months before the standoff. His estranged wife called 911 in March and accused him of striking her. He ran when officers arrived at the couple’s home on Lawndale Avenue, across the street from his parents' house.
He later told his mother that their raised guns triggered a flashback to Iraq. His explanation, though possibly spurious, corresponds with studies that suggest weapons wielded by others can reignite traumatic memories in veterans with PTSD.
The cops caught him down the street. In an angry account on Facebook — corroborated by neighbors who witnessed his arrest — he alleged that officers punched him repeatedly and “stomped my already broken skull more times than I could count.” Sims had sustained a traumatic brain injury from a roadside bomb explosion during his second Iraq tour in 2010.
“He went downhill fast after what the police did,” said his younger sister, Shawnda, who lives in Minnesota and stayed in touch with him mostly through text and Facebook messages. She has a large tattoo on her upper back of a black cross overlaid with the words “R.I.P. Issac.” “He seemed a lot more distrusting of other people.”
Sims moved in with his parents after his arrest. On May 25, when he fired his AK-47 outside the house, Shawn informed the 911 dispatcher that his son suffered from PTSD. Capt. Tye Grant, a police spokesman, told Stars and Stripes that one of the responding officers knew about Sims’ military past and combat trauma.
Shawn, a Vietnam veteran, objected when police forced him to leave the scene. He returned from war with two Bronze Stars and four Purple Hearts, along with chronic post-traumatic stress disorder. He believed he could enlighten officers about his son’s mental condition.
“I’ve dealt with PTSD most of my life and I’ve known Issac his whole life,” said Shawn, who has taken to wearing his son’s green Army field jacket. “I could relate to what he was going through more than any cop could.”
Grant countered that police removed Shawn for his safety and to reduce the risk of inflaming Sims, given that the two men had argued earlier. Police officials applied a similar rationale in denying Shawn and Patricia’s requests to speak with their son by phone as the standoff unfolded.
“You’re trying to control the situation and you’re trying to control what is said. You have no idea what a family member will say, or what could be said that might set the person off,” Grant said.
Officers called in the tactical team to form a perimeter around the property. An armored vehicle was parked in the backyard. Hours passed as negotiators worked to coax Sims outside. There was no gunfire from him or police.
The official narrative ends with the garage’s weathered back door swinging open around 5 p.m. Sims leveled his AK-47 at members of the tactical team. He did not shoot.
The parental narrative is neverending. His mother and father awaken each day bereaved again.
“Look at how things turned out,” Patricia said. Around her neck hung a bronze, heart-shaped pendant veined with thin lines, made from a mold of her son’s fingerprint. “Do the cops really think it could have gone worse if we’d been able to talk with him?”
‘Not a good thing’
Sgt. Sean Hess explained the stark logic that prevails for police in armed standoffs. “You point a gun at an officer and things aren’t going to go well,” he said. “The general public doesn’t really get that.”
Hess serves as a supervisor for the Kansas City Police Department’s crisis intervention teams. Two years ago, collaborating with VA officials, he and other supervisors created a training course for officers to learn de-escalation tactics for handling veterans with PTSD.
The annual three-day program offers instruction by VA clinicians about the effects and symptoms of combat trauma. The course resembles the training that the Justice Department’s COPS office has provided for some two dozen police departments across the country.
The programs reflect a dawning awareness in law enforcement of the dual impact of delays in VA treatment and the slashing of state budgets for behavioral health care nationwide. More than $4 billion has been cut since 2009, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“The mental health system in America is broken, and I’m not just talking about the VA,” Hess said. “And, unfortunately, law enforcement is left to pick up the pieces.”
Hess did not take part in the negotiations with Sims. He described the former soldier’s death as “not a good thing” while asserting that police must weigh a troubled veteran’s needs against the potential threat posed to civilians and officers.
“We have an obligation to other people in the community and ourselves,” he said. “I’ll risk my life to save anyone in a heartbeat. But I’m not going to risk my life in a situation that’s no-win like that.”
The weapons and tactical training of a military veteran compounds the wariness of police, and if negotiators are unable to establish contact, the prospect of violence rises. “When you’re armed and barricaded, so many options are off the table,” Hess said. “We want to resolve the situation peacefully, but at that point, you’re going to come out and surrender or we’re going to go in and get you.”
Most former military members involved in fatal standoffs had previous encounters with law enforcement. The training course held by Kansas City police emphasizes guiding veterans toward support services when those initial incidents occur, a preemptive approach to stop them from imploding.
Yet gaining access to timely care, particularly through the VA, remains a pervasive problem for veterans nationwide. Sims was turned away on at least five occasions in May when he attempted to enroll in a counseling program at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
His mental health deteriorated further as the weeks passed, and days before his death, he brooded out loud about the alleged beating he endured from police in March. If officers came for him again, he told his parents, “They ain’t taking me alive.”
The remark inspires the question of whether Sims intended to commit “suicide by cop,” goading officers to shoot him by pointing his AK-47 at them. His parents discard that theory and pivot to a question of their own, wondering how police could portray him as a danger when he never fired at them.
“I think he felt lost and tired, but I don’t believe he wanted to die,” Patricia said. “And he obviously didn’t try to kill anybody. With his training, he could have killed a bunch of them if he wanted to. I think what happened is, the cops got tired of waiting and they blew him away.”
She pulled a cream-colored piece of paper from one of the tote bags bulging with her son’s military and medical records. It was his death certificate, and she pointed to the lone word that identifies the cause of death.
“Homicide,” she said.
In a medical context, the term refers to death resulting from the actions of others and does not assign intent, unlike the legal concept of murder. Still, for Patricia and Shawn, the word resonates with blame.
The couple has retained local attorney Chuck Chionuma while they consider filing a wrongful-death suit against the police department. He represented their son in veterans treatment court and remembered Sims as respectful and soft-spoken with a mind that flitted in and out of the moment.
“You could see it in his eyes,” Chionuma said. “He was there, then he would kind of fade away, then he would come back.” Recounting their exchanges, the attorney added, “I’m not even sure he was totally aware of all the things he was going through.”
Chionuma has learned that during the standoff a police officer called the VA and asked to talk to someone familiar with Sims’ psychological profile. It was Memorial Day weekend, and nobody on-duty that afternoon knew his case. The person who answered the phone offered to track down a clinician.
A short time later, the officer called back and told the person to forget the request. Sims was dead.
“The kid gave his all for us,” Chionuma said. “He went and fought two tours in Iraq, sustained a brain injury and came back here with PTSD. He needed help. And the entire system failed him. Killed him.”
‘I lose my breath’
Police barred Patricia and Shawn from going home for several hours after officers shot their son. The couple returned in the middle of the night and discovered the interior semi-demolished.
The cops swept through the house after the shooting and flipped over tables and furniture, knocked down bookshelves and dumped out drawers. Shards of glass from shattered windows and photo frames speckled the floor. Bullet holes pitted the walls at the back of the house.
The couple stepped into the garage and saw a large pool of blood by the back door. They noticed other puddles of blood in the basement, stirring their doubts about the police’s version of the killing. They found a plank of wood on which Sims wrote “#1 Mom” in black spray paint during the siege.
Patricia soaked up some of her son’s blood with a white long-sleeved shirt that belonged to him. The rust-tinted garment hangs near his green Army dress uniform in his old basement bedroom. Upstairs in the living room, an urn in the shape of a grenade and painted red, white and blue holds a small portion of his ashes. It stands on a shelf below a collage of photos from his military career.
The twin themes run through the house, relics of death beside tokens of life, grief shadowing joy in a space that has become a memorial.
“My boy was killed here,” Shawn said. “I’ll never leave.” By night, he related, he dreams of Issac again and again. By day, he is cleaved by opposing urges, to kill cops or to kill himself, to avenge his son or to reunite with him.
Patricia comforts her husband as she searches for meaning in her despair. “I can’t believe God took Issac from me,” she said. “I’m not angry at God. I’m just confused.” At each meal, an irrational thought descends, born of a mother’s eternal instinct to care for her child. “What’s Issac eating?”
“I lost my best friend,” she said. “Every time I think of him, I lose my breath.”
Her voice disappeared. She let the tears fall.