March 1, 2021 05:10

Case manager murdered by client as police agencies consider replacing officers with social workers

SEATTLE — It’s trending. Many police agencies are considering dispatching social workers to handle a variety of calls. Some have already implemented programs to do that very thing.

Yet Seattle just experienced a homicide that serves as a reminder why this is generally a bad idea.

Man snaps

More than two weeks before Hans Van-Belkum was accused of fatally stabbing his case manager at the Lewiston Apartments in Belltown on Monday, he purchased a military-grade knife from a surplus store a half-block from his residence, according to King County prosecutors.

The knife was apparently purchased specifically to kill Kristin Benson, 42, who was found face down on her office floor with the knife buried in her back, say prosecutors, who on Wednesday charged Van-Belkum with premeditated first-degree murder, Seattle Times reported.

Van-Belkum, who was arrested five hours after the fatal knife attack, was also charged Wednesday with second-degree assault, accused of repeatedly punching another staff member before he fled the building.

He remains in custody at the King County Jail in lieu of $1 million bail, jail records show. He is scheduled to be arraigned Dec. 9.

Overview

Seattle Times outlined the case as follows:

Seattle police responded to a report of a stabbing just before 11 a.m. Monday and found Benson’s body on the floor of her office. Witnesses identified Van-Belkum as her attacker.

Video-surveillance footage from the hallway outside Benson’s office shows a man, who was carrying two grocery bags, was buzzed into the building by a staff member. He walked to Benson’s office, where he put the bags on the floor and pulled a large knife out from under his coat, then quickly entered the room, according to the charges.

A co-worker later told police she heard Benson’s screams and ran to her office, where she recognized the attacker and saw him making “punching/stabbing motions” as Benson lay face down on the floor. The co-worker turned and ran back to her office with the armed man in pursuit.

The surveillance footage shows the man fell, then attempted to break down the co-worker’s locked office door, say the charges. As he returned to Benson’s office, another co-worker opened her door but quickly closed and locked it.

“The defendant then reentered the victim’s office where he, at a minimum, plunged his knife into the victim’s back,” a Seattle police detective wrote in the charges.

The man tossed his grocery bags into the office and punched another staff member, driving the staff member to the ground before a resident pulled him off, the charges say. He then left the building.

Police say Van-Belkum was wearing the same clothes as the attacker seen in the video-surveillance footage when he was arrested hours later in the 2300 block of Elliott Avenue, according to the charges. His clothes, which appeared to have blood on them, were taken as evidence.

During the investigation, police also obtained video-surveillance footage that showed Van-Belkum purchasing the knife used in the attack from a military surplus store on Nov. 7, according to the charges.

An autopsy later revealed Benson had been stabbed 12 times; eight of the stab wounds were to her back and three of those wounds alone would have been fatal, the charges say.

Prosecutor’s comments

“The murder of Ms. Benson was horrifying, an unarmed victim, trapped in her own office, unable to escape or fight back against the defendant’s rage and blade,” Senior Deputy Prosecutor Dan Raz wrote in charging papers. “Equally terrifying was the defendant’s willingness to violently attack others who came to Ms. Benson’s assistance.”

Raz noted Van-Belkum chased one of Benson’s colleagues with the knife but he slipped and fell, enabling her to lock herself in her office. But for that, Van-Belkum could have been facing a second murder charge and the community would be mourning “a second individual who had committed their lives to assisting the less fortunate in our city,” Raz wrote.

Low-income housing

The Lewiston Apartments, located in the 2200 block of First Avenue, is a low-income housing facility operated by the Plymouth Housing Group. The agency confirmed earlier this week the woman killed was a full-time housing case manager.

Van-Belkum was an eight-year resident of the building, and Seattle police later found a note in his apartment that indicated he believed Benson was trying to have him evicted, say the charges. The court documents don’t address whether an eviction was actually planned. He does not appear to have any prior criminal convictions, according to the Times.

Caution 

Although Benson’s murder was not the result of a new program to “reimagine” policing, it simply serves as a reminder as to why it’s a terrible idea to dispatch social workers on certain calls for service.

Van-Belkum reportedly does not have a criminal record. Moreover, a note was discovered in his apartment that indicated he believed Benson, a full-time housing case manager, was trying to evict him.

Last summer the St. Petersburg Police Department in Florida developed a program that will dispatch a Community Assistance Liaison (CAL) team member (social worker) to the following calls for service:

  • Disorderly intoxication
  • Drug overdose
  • Intoxicated person
  • Mental health crisis
  • Suicide crisis
  • Mental health transport
  • Disorderly juvenile/truancy
  • Disorderly juvenile at elementary schools
  • Panhandling
  • Homeless complaints
  • Neighborhood dispute

If Van-Belkum lived in St. Petersburg (or any city deploying social workers) and dialed 911, his circumstances would have likely qualified for a “CAL team member” response.

While a large percentage of these calls can be handled peacefully, the described situations can also become combustible and unpredictable. i.e. Van-Belkum. To what degree is the agency assuming liability by placing a social worker in harm’s way? To what degree is a social worker willing to put him or herself in this kind of vicarious position? Furthermore, how many times will the social worker need to call for police assistance? Will law enforcement help arrive in time?

It is indeed Russian Roulette. Situations can become volatile with little to no warning, and absent red flags that would trigger a law enforcement response. Street cops deal with inflammatory circumstances all the time–and we do not hear about it unless a powder keg explodes. So police agencies need to be extremely careful about “reimagining” their services as so many cities are demanding.

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