Recently armed, possibly suicidal and a suspected COVID-19 case — the 911 call early Tuesday morning described a nightmare scenario for law enforcement, according to the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office.
It got worse when the man deliberately coughed at deputies while being detained under the Baker Act, according to a CCSO report, putting three law enforcement officers out of commission for two weeks.
Around 12:48 a.m. Tuesday, deputies responded to Southwest County Road 778 after a woman reported her husband, armed with a handgun, was threatening to harm himself. The troubled man and another in the home are believed to be carriers of the virus, according to the report.
The wife told dispatchers she had managed to get the gun away from her spouse, whose name was redacted in the report.
Wearing gloves and masks for protection, deputies arrived at the scene and approached a woman who was standing outside — the reportedly suicidal man’s wife.
The woman slowly walked toward a deputy with her hands raised before turning her back toward them, announcing that the gun she removed from the husband was in her back pocket.
After a deputy removed the gun, the woman said her husband wandered off alone in the dark and she didn’t know where he was.
Around that time, the woman learned from her son, whom she had left on speakerphone while talking to deputies, that her husband was back home.
The son had already confiscated the keys to the “gun room,” the woman told deputies when asked if there were other weapons in the house.
Deputies told the woman to have her son keep an eye on the troubled man while they approached the home.
She tried to do as law enforcement requested, but the conversation with her son was interrupted.
Deputies could hear the son over the phone saying, “no dad, stop dad, give me the knife,” according to the report.
Based on the information at hand, deputies concluded the subject met the criteria for involuntary psychiatric evaluation under the Baker Act, the report states.
Deputies made contact with the son, who said his father may have a knife in his pocket.
Deputies then spoke with the disturbed man, telling him that his family was concerned for his safety and he needed to go to a treatment facility, according to the report.
Since the man possibly carried COVID-19, deputies tried to limit contact and commanded him to comply, the report states.
The man, who was lying in bed, resisted the commands initially, according to the report.
After several minutes, he finally started getting up — slowly, the report states. When a deputy moved in to place him in cuffs, the man tensed up.
Deputies grabbed his arms and forced him face-down on the bed.
They secured him in restraints and were escorting him out the room when he tensed up and began to actively resist, according to the report.
Deliberately, the man turned his head and coughed directly on a deputy’s face, telling him to “catch the coronavirus,” the report states.
Though the cough was directly aimed at only one deputy, two others were in close proximity. Cough droplets can travel farther than most people assume, according to literature from the Florida Department of Health.
All three deputies involved were exposed to the man’s sweat and deliberate coughing, the report states.
They were subsequently placed in a 14-day self-quarantine.
While being walked past a swimming pool, the man made a comment about drowning and again tensed up, according to the report. A deputy grabbed the subject’s arm to prevent him from trying to shove any of them into the pool, the report states.
The man complained that his family didn’t want to be around him anymore and that they would never want to see him again, according to the report.
Deputies sanitized themselves with Lysol wipes and sanitizer.
The subject was taken to Lake City Medical Center and placed under the Baker Act.
Upon arriving at the hospital, he passively resisted law enforcement, who had to use force twice to get him on a stretcher — he fell to the floor the first time, according to the report.
A warrant affidavit was filed with the Third Circuit State Attorney’s Office, which will review whether to file charges for three counts of battery on a law enforcement officer and three counts of resisting with violence.
The situation illustrates the dangers that law enforcement faces on a daily basis, said CCSO spokesperson Murray Smith.
“Even if you take away the COVID-19, you still have a highly dangerous situation,” Smith said.
Those who intentionally spread the virus risk criminal charges under federal terrorism laws, according to a recent memo from the U.S. Department of Justice.
“Threats or attempts to use COVID-19 as a weapon against Americans will not be tolerated,” the memo says.
Precedents are already popping up as prosecutors around the nation consider whether to go after offenders on those grounds.
A 26-year-old Missouri man, who was accused of recording himself licking merchandise at Walmart to mock the COVID-19 pandemic, has been charged with making terrorist threats. The case is being prosecuted at the state level, but it illustrates how the crisis is shaping the way such behavior is viewed in the eyes of the law.