Normally I don’t get excited when I see news of a lawsuit in progress. Most of these lawsuits, filed in response to someone’s accident or unfortunate injury or death long after the criminal authorities are done with the matter, are rarely about the money. Rather they are about someone trying to make a point, argue a principle, or set out a visible reminder so that “this never happens again.” Of course this, whatever this is, almost always does happen again. I keep thinking there must be a better way.

But last Saturday, January 28, my heart leaped a little when I saw the headline in the Times of Trenton: “Family sues in knife attack.” Someone, I thought, is finally asking some hard questions in the case of Jelani Manigault, the 24-year-old college student who in a period of extreme emotional disorder was staying with his parents at the Tenacre Foundation in Princeton Township, escaped in the middle of the night on January 23, 2003, crashed his parents’ car shortly thereafter, and ended up in the home of William Sword Jr.

Seeing that the young man was obviously injured, Sword allowed him into the house and Sword’s wife called 911. At that point Manigault attacked Sword and his brother-in-law, who was visiting at the time, with a 12-inch kitchen knife. Sword and the brother-in-law counter-attacked with a frying pan and drove Manigault from the house. By then the four policemen arrived and confronted him outside. According to newspaper accounts at the time, Manigault refused orders to put down the knife. One officer slipped in the snow about 10 feet away from Manigault, who then appeared to lunge at the officer. Police shot him in the groin, stomach, and, head, and he died at the scene.

So when I saw the headline I jumped to a conclusion: Finally, I thought, the Manigault family has broken its silence and is asking some questions. The evening before the incident, the parents had taken their son to the Princeton Medical Center for evaluation. Did he show any signs there of his impending emotional turmoil? After being released from the medical center’s emergency room at 9:18 p.m. the family, Christian Scientists, went to the Christian Science care center at Tenacre to spend the night. Could Tenacre personnel have done something to better contain the young man?

Then, in the wooded grounds outside the Sword residence on the Great Road, was there anything in the arsenal of 21st century crime-fighting technology that could have enabled four officers to subdue one injured former college soccer player and art student, dressed only in tee shirt, pants, and socks on a cold, midwinter night? Could the death of Jelani Manigault have been averted?

We are not likely to hear many of those questions raised in this lawsuit. The family mentioned in the headline turns out to be the Sword family. It’s probably not about the money. The Swords are the investment banking family and the suit mentions no financial claims. They are suing the Tenacre Foundation and its employees and the estate of Jelani Manigault with negligence in allowing him to escape and inflict “grievous mental and physical bodily injuries and unimaginable pain and suffering.”

I still think there are lingering, unanswered questions surrounding the final resolution of this case. Police would argue, I am sure, that no one can imagine what it’s like to be confronted by a deranged man with a 12-inch knife, and that plenty of officers — more concerned with the suspect’s safety than with their own — have ended up dead.

But we pay the police far more than we pay others in similar but less hazardous pursuits, and offer lucrative overtime, time off, benefits, and lengthy pensions unequaled in the private sector. We do so exactly because of these situations. Are the police trained adequately to handle them? Do they have the right equipment to handle such situations? In the aftermath of this unfortunate incident, did Princeton Township police review the case, and attempt to take any lessons away from it?

Oddly enough, while news of the fatal encounter filled a few columns in the Princeton community papers that week, shootings of another kind were commanding greater headlines. That January marked the beginning of the third year of the Township’s highly controversial deer “culling” program, which included the use of sharpshooters as well as other animal control officers who deployed nets to trap the deer and then killed them with a retractable four-inch bolt shot into the trapped animal’s head. For deer control the Township Committee even employed an experimental, high tech contraception program, which included radio collars and ear tags so that does could be tracked and the program evaluated.

In January, 2003, the letters-to-the-editor pages of the Princeton Packet and Town Topics overflowed with concern for the deer and how the animals might suffer at the hands of the shooters and — ever worse — the netters.

Instead of filing a lawsuit, I simply propose that we take an ounce or two from the fountain of concern for the deer and give it to the memory of Jelani Manigault. What if the cops had borrowed some equipment from the deer killers, and had fashioned a net that could have been thrown around the deranged young man, trapping the shoeless soul in the snow until he shivered into submission? Would that have been a better way?

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