Michelle Lee Shirley: Woman with mental issues shot dead by Torrance police officers
Michelle Lee Shirley, 39, had a big heart and big dreams. She helped raise six siblings and graduated from UC San Diego, then enrolled in law school at the University of Loyola.
Friends and family told local media that it was the stress of her studies and the struggles of raising a young son that finally took their toll. Shirley had a mental breakdown about 10 years ago. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
The condition descended upon her on Monday, October 31, 2016 when police responded to a traffic disturbance at the corner of at Sepulveda Boulevard and Cabrillo Avenue in Torrance, California.
There, officers found Shirley behind the wheel of a car that had its airbags deployed and its fender badly mangled, evidence of a fresh crash. According to a report from Torrance police, when officers cornered her Shirley backed into one of the police cruisers and sped toward another cruiser -- that's when officers opened fire, striking her repeatedly.
She was rushed to the hospital, where she was pronounced dead about 3 p.m. on Halloween.
Shirley's mother, who told media that police had been called several times because of her daughter's behavior, questioned whether mental illness should result in a death sentence.
"I don’t know what was going through her head as she was driving or trying to get away,” her Debra Shirley told The Daily Breeze. “I can’t even imagine. But why did they have to kill her?
“I feel like they paint people of color with a brush that says: ‘You’re disposable.’ I really feel like police are not equipped to deal with mental illness in the field. Shoot the tires or disable the car.”
Torrance police released an incident report, which said the following:
"On October 31, 2016, at approximately 2:28 pm, Torrance Police Officers responded to multiple 911 calls of an erratic and reckless driver in the area of Arlington Avenue and Post Avenue in the City of Torrance. The vehicle was described as having collision damage and deployed side airbags were visible to the reporting party.
Torrance Police units responded to the area and upon locating the vehicle they observed reckless and dangerous driving, and a pursuit ensued. Officers were authorized to utilize a Precision Intervention Technique maneuver which brought the vehicle to a stop facing northbound on Cabrillo Ave just north of Sepulveda Boulevard. The vehicle accelerated in reverse striking an occupied Torrance Police vehicle and then accelerated forward striking a second occupied marked Torrance Police vehicle. At that point an officer involved shooting occurred at approximately 2:36 pm.
Officers immediately performed life-saving measures on the driver and she was transported to Harbor General Hospital. The driver was pronounced dead at the hospital at approximately 3:05 pm. Investigators confirmed the deceased's identity at approximately 10:30 pm. The deceased was identified as being Michelle Lee Shirley, 39 years of San Diego."
Family friend Tommy Gorman told 10News, "I don't know if I ever heard anything bad about her. She was a nice person. [She] scared me one day when I first moved here … [I was] sitting in my car and she came up and said, 'Welcome to the neighborhood.' Whoa! She was a beautiful, beautiful young girl."
“Her behavior was out of the ordinary,” said her sister Karen, who lives in the Los Angeles area and saw Michelle a few days before her death.
What made matters worse for the family is that they found out about Shirley's death from a TV news reporter who had called the home.
“It’s just been a complete shock to everybody,” Karen Shirley told the Daily Breeze. “All the sisters were on a conference call all night just listening to each other breathe because we didn’t know what to do next. It’s hard because we’re such a close family.
“She was the oldest. She was the mother when our mother was at work. She raised six of us and we all went to college. She competed in science competitions since she was 9 years old and got accepted to the best universities and law schools.”
Shirley talked openly about her bipolar disorder in a video for an organization it's Up to Us.
"I was active in my church. I had my own car and apartment and was working a full-time job while pulling all-nighters to keep my grades up to get into law school," Shirley said.
"But then I started sleeping less and less," she continued. "I started having an overload of creative ideas one after another and I wasn't completing any. I did strange things. One time I went out and just bought a bunch of plants and gave them away. I shaved my head. I couldn't function because I couldn't keep my focus."