These police shootings involved people having mental health crises

Recent police shootings in Northeast Florida are shining light on how we as a society respond to people who are experiencing a mental health crisis.

Amid the nationwide movement for police reform seen from different social justice groups -- including groups in Jacksonville -- mental health advocates have spoken out against police-involved shootings involving people who are experiencing a mental health crisis.

In November 2019, a Jacksonville police officer shot and killed Chris Ervie, who investigators said threatened suicide after Ervie raised a knife in the officer’s direction twice. The graphic body camera video of the incident was released this week.

The State Attorney’s Office recently released Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office body camera video of the case involving Leah Baker, 29. She lunged at police with a knife. Her mother told News4Jax that Baker had called for help that day fearing she might be a danger to herself and not others.

Among other body camera footage 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.

On Tuesday, a Hilliard woman was shot and killed when she raised a rifle at a deputy. Calls made to 911 paint a tragic picture of her past, which includes a custody battle with her ex.

“Give my son back to me. I’m not crazy, I’m broken,” the woman tearfully tells negotiating deputies on the phone.

The shootings of Ervie, Baker and Feliciano were ruled justified by the State Attorney’s Office. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has taken over the Hilliard shooting case from NCSO.

Officers have to make split-second decisions in situations they can’t predict. According to Suzanne Mailloux, with the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI), there needs to be help for people long before police get involved, but that’s not always easy.

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.

According to Mailloux, these body cam videos expose flaws within the mental health system in which patients have been failed long before they encounter police.

“Absolutely there is a great deal of stigma surrounding mental illness, and people are not finding the help that they need,” Mailloux said.

While some are calling for police departments to require more training in crisis intervention, others are promoting alternative emergency response programs.

“NAMI Jacksonville recognizes the lack of appropriately funded mental health crisis services, and it has resulted in law enforcement having to serve as first responders in these crisis services,” Mailloux said. “We definitely support models that utilize behavioral health professionals in response to crisis services in response to mental health calls that come in to 911.”

But no matter how much crisis intervention someone has, some situations you can’t predict.

“I think it’s twofold,” she said. “I think that definitely getting people the help they need prior to prevent these situations is important. But we do believe that a licensed mental counselor has the tools in their tool belt to help de-escalate.”

A mental health hotline, routed through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, is coming in 2022. The 988 shortcut is meant to keep people in crisis out of jail and connect them with appropriate services.

However, Mailloux said while it’s a step in the right direction, locally, funding is going to make a difference as to how and where those calls are routed.

This Saturday, NAMI is hosting its inaugural 5K event to raise funds and awareness for mental illness.

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