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Are Police Too Aggressive With The Mentally Ill?


Officer-involved shootings have raised questions about police tactics and when the use of gunfire is justified. In Los Angeles County, at least 1 in 10 police shootings over the past five years involved confrontations with people in a mental health crisis. Rina Palta of member station KPCC examined whether officers in Los Angeles are being too aggressive with people struggling with mental illness.

RINA PALTA, BYLINE: January 4, 2012 started normally enough for Jazmyne Eng. Her sister Nancy says it was a regular Wednesday.

NANCY ENG: That morning, she had came to my room and said she was going out job hunting.

PALTA: Jazmyne, small but athletic, was a high school tennis star. After college, she worked in sports retail, but she also battled schizophrenia.

ENG: She felt that people were plotting to get her in trouble. That was a constant symptom of her illness.

PALTA: Nancy didn't know on this morning, Jasmyne was carrying around a small hammer. She'd become paranoid someone was trying to hurt her. She walked into the Asian Pacific Family Center.

ROBERT FINNERTY: And she said, I want to see my therapist.

PALTA: Robert Finnerty is Nancy Eng's attorney. He says Jasmyne was sitting in the lobby for hours, but clinic staff couldn't get her to talk to them or give up the hammer.

GLENN MASUDA: We have a low-level threat emergency situation.

PALTA: That's Dr. Glenn Masuda, the clinic's director, talking to dispatchers at the local sheriff's station. He explains Jazmyne's suffering from psychosis, but she isn’t acting violently.

MASUDA: Waiting in the main lobby very calmly with a ball-peen hammer in her lap. We don't want it to escalate at this point.

PALTA: The lobby was evacuated except for Jasmyne. According to an investigation by the LA district attorney, for deputies arrived. One pulled out a Taser, another, his gun and walked into the lobby. They yelled at Jasmyne to put down the hammer. This is a pretty typical police move, to give loud authoritative and clear orders and then expect the person to comply.

WILLIAM TERRILL: They're coming at it from a perspective that tends, I think, to overstress rationality.

PALTA: William Terrill is a former military police officer and current criminal justice professor at Michigan State. He says normal tactics don't really work when someone's in mental health crisis. They might not even be hearing the commands. They might just be hearing loud, angry voices and getting scared.

TERRILL: And it doesn't seem that the officer is taking that into account, that they're just saying, well, this person's not listening to me, therefore, I'm going to tase them.

PALTA: An analysis by KPCC found, in more than 40 cases since 2010, officers in Los Angeles County shot people in mental health crisis. Many think that number's low. In 12 of those shootings, the cops were primarily called in to help someone who was a threat to themselves. Some were unarmed. Some had a gun, and some were armed with other things, like a knife or, in Jasmyne Eng's cases, a small hammer. When Eng raised that hammer, Deputy Daniel Esqueda shot two Taser darts. According to the police account, she charged towards them. Deputy Brian Vance fired his gun, hitting Jasmyne twice. Los Angeles district attorney Jackie Lacey says too many people in mental health crisis are getting shot by police. She says it's a catch-22.

JACKIE LACEY: There's no one else to call but the police. The police respond. You have to hope that the officer who responds is well-trained. And if they're not, then you may be looking at seeing your loved one carried out in a body bag.

PALTA: The answer, she says, is a big shift in how police are trained. She wants all police in LA County to take a minimum two-day training on dealing with people in mental health crisis to de-escalate confrontations. In Jasmyne Eng's case, a department panel found the deputies involved should have done just that. One was taken off patrol for two years, but all of them kept their jobs. The deputies involved declined to comment. Ultimately, LA County sheriff Jim McDonnell says the shooting was justified.

JIM MCDONNELL: A person with a hammer, no matter what their size is, can kill you. You've got, you know, milliseconds in some cases to respond. It's a giant decision, and you go with your training.

PALTA: LA County paid Eng's family a $1.85 million wrongful death settlement. Nancy Eng, her sister, says if it was fear the deputies felt when Jasmyne came towards them, they weren't the only ones.

ENG: She was afraid, and that, to me, is probably the hardest thing - is, she was killed for being scared.

PALTA: For NPR News, I'm Rina Palta in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rina Palta