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Man shot to death by Catasauqua police battled mental health issues and encounter should not have ended in ‘death sentence,’ family says
Morning Call - 2/23/2021
Ryan Shirey, the 27-year-old man shot to death by Catasauqua police Friday, was “in a heightened paranoid state” when officers responded to a 911 call at the home he shared with his parents, but the encounter should not have ended in a death sentence, his family says.
A statement released by family member Jeff Purdon said Shirey battled mental health issues his entire adult life after being diagnosed during his childhood, and was in need of treatment, not a use of force from police who were called to the home for a domestic argument.
“There are no words to accurately describe the pain of this sudden loss, the anguish at times unbearable,” the family said in the statement. “He is a victim of a system that failed him. A system that made it impossible to get the treatment and help that he so desperately needed.
“Those of us who knew Ryan know he posed no mortal threat to anyone. The family and close friends find ourselves thinking of the countless ways this situation could have been de-escalated. What he needed was treatment, and what he received was a death sentence in a chaotic encounter with law enforcement.”
Shirey was in the basement of the home at 133 S. 14th St. in Catasauqua Friday afternoon after police were called there by his ex-girlfriend during a “heated” argument, according to authorities. When officers went to the basement to speak with Shirey, he was holding what appeared to be a revolver, Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin said.
Shirey did not comply with orders to drop the weapon, and an officer opened fire and Shirey was killed, Martin said. The officer was placed on leave pending the outcome of an investigation into the shooting, which is ongoing, according to the DA’s office.
The district attorney declined further comment on the matter since it’s remains an active investigation, and there was no immediate timeline for its completion. Catasauqua police could not immediately be reached for comment.
Purdon said Catasauqua police had been at the home in the past, and the department should have had some awareness about Shirey’s mental health issues. The presence of law enforcement could trigger his paranoia, Purdon said.
“I feel like there was no compassion, no understanding [from police] going in,” Purdon said. “We have no idea what was running through his head. Nobody gets to know what his last thoughts were.”
Shirey’s family said they hope the Catasauqua police will consider how the incident could have been better handled considering Shirey’s mental health issues made him a “vulnerable member of this community.”
A 2015 study by the Virginia-based nonprofit Treatment Advocacy Center demonstrated that people with untreated mental illnesses were 16 times more likely to be shot by law enforcement. The study recommended that encounters between law enforcement and individuals with the most severe psychiatric diseases be reduced, calling it “the single most immediate practical strategy for reducing fatal police shootings in the United States.”
Purdon said the family is exploring legal options.
According to Shirey’s obituary, he loved animals, something family friend Scott Rossi said was evident anytime Shirey was near a four-legged creature.
When Rossi was moving across the country in 2006, Shirey agreed to watch his cat Scooter for awhile. The two got so close that Rossi thought it best to let them stay together.
“They had such a bond. It was unreal,” Rossi said.
More recently, Shirey agreed to watch Rossi’s dog while he was at work. He’d come home and find them both curled up on the couch together, snoring away. Rossi said his dog had her own special tail wag dance whenever she laid eyes on Shirey.
“He probably understood animals better than he understood people,” Purdon said.
Shirey’s battle with mental health issues was constant, but according to family and friends, he could find solace “in digital spaces” and the myriad interests that would snag his attention.
Shirey spent countless hours creating electronic music, but was very private about the art and wouldn’t share his creations, Purdon said. Regardless, the comfort Shirey found in his music was evident to anyone who knew him, Purdon said.
His ability to become hyper-focused on a subject meant he’d dive deep into a subject once it caught his attention, according to Purdon.
He recalled how for a period of time, Shirey would haul a tome about coding with him wherever he went, though he never seemed to be reading it.
“It was more like this physical reminder that this was something he had to get into and learn about at some point,” Purdon said.
Purdon also said Shirey loved to spend time surfing Google Maps and touring the halls of far-away museums online with his father, Karl Shirey.
“It was like he was in his own little world sometimes,” Purdon said. “And we were all just guests.”
Rossi started an online fundraiser for the Shirey family to help defray the costs associated with his funeral and arrangements.
“This world is poorer for Ryan’s absence,” said Rossi. “He will be greatly missed, and we will spend the rest of our lives working for justice for Ryan.”
Morning Call reporter Sarah M. Wojcik can be reached at 610-778-2283 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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