Bodycam footage shines light on mental illness

Forensic psychologist says 2 recently released videos expose flaws with mental health system

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A new policy that allows for a quicker release of body camera footage capturing police shootings in Jacksonville is shining a light on mental health issues.

Two recently released videos show footage of people with known mental illnesses who were shot and killed by Jacksonville sheriff’s officers after brandishing knives.

One of those videos involves the case of 29-year-old Leah Baker, whose mother said she needed mental health help but wasn’t able to get any treatment. Her mother believes had her daughter gotten better treatment long before, she might be alive.

A JSO officer responded to Baker’s home in April after dispatch received a 911 call from the woman. Upon knocking on the door, Baker can be seen in the video charging the officer and stabbing her. The officer fired and missed, but another officer shot and killed Baker shortly after when she ran at him with a knife, which she refused to drop.

Among other body camera footage recently released is the encounter a JSO officer had with 33-year-old Frankie Feliciano in July 2019. The video shows the officer approaching him at night as he held a man in a wheelchair at knifepoint on West State Street. After demanding Feliciano drop the weapon, the officer fired, killing him.

“Oh, thank God,” exclaimed the veteran held at knifepoint.

Both shootings were ruled justified by the State Attorney’s Office. Both suspects had documented mental illnesses and were believed to be off their medications and treatment plans at the time.

“Fifteen percent (of) calls that police respond to are involving a person with mental illness,” said Dr. Justin D’Arienzo, a forensic psychologist and Navy veteran who reviewed the raw body camera footage.

Now that the State Attorney’s Office has a new policy allowing the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office to release body camera footage from most police-involved shootings, the public will be seeing more of what officers face daily. A lot has to do with people who are mentally unstable, D’Arienzo said.

In both cases, he said, little could have been done.

“Could a mental health professional have averted that situation? Likely not,” he said. “The officer made a split-second decision. Some situations you can’t predict, and it doesn’t matter what amount of crisis intervention training you receive, such situations you’re never trained for.”

He said these videos expose flaws with the mental health system, in which some patients are failed long before police respond. And the effects of a deadly incident, plus the release of the footage, can be traumatizing for the families and the first responders involved.

“We have to do something greater, something better about treating our mentally ill and make sure there’s better mental health awareness so people are seeing specialists, they’re on medication, they’re getting the treatment that they need,” D’Arienzo added.

But that’s easier said than done. With the Baker Act, patients can be released in a few days. And they’re only admitted if they’re found to be a danger to themselves or others at the time. Many mental health treatments cost big money, and many providers don’t take insurance so expenses are out of pocket. Therefore, people with fewer financial resources could be more likely to be in situations like these videos.

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