The killing of a mentally ill, 66-year old, African American woman by police has been officially criticized as violating NYPD police policy. Deborah Danner was shot after she dropped a pair of scissors she was holding during the psychiatric episode and picked up a baseball bat. Police had been called to Ms. Danner’s home several times before and she was taken away safely. Mayor Bill deBlasio criticized the shooting stating that had police protocols been followed Ms. Danner would still be alive.
One in Four People Shot by Police are Mentally Ill
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the police book some 2 million mentally ill persons into the nation’s jail system each year. NAMI reports that roughly one in three women in the jail system suffer from some form of mental illness while 15 percent of the men housed there are mentally ill. More alarming is the fact, says NAMI, that one in four of the people involved in police shootings suffers from mental illness.
Some police departments have Crisis Intervention Teams (or CIT programs) that provide mental health training to its officers. Some major police departments, like the Houston Police Department which began providing its officers with specialized mental health training in the early 1990s, have seen positive results with their CIT programs.
Crisis Intervention Training Shows Promise
Amy Watson is an associate professor at the Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois in Chicago. Last year she told the Chicago Tribune that “the research suggests that (CIT programs) can work in terms of improving officers’ knowledge, their attitudes, their skill sets for responding. There’s some evidence that they can reduce the use of force and injuries. There’s some evidence that they can reduce arrests of people with mental illness, and they can increase linkage to mental health services.”
But not all law enforcement officers receive CIT training, and even some that do either fail or neglect to utilize the program’s protocols.
In March 2012, Jacob Tactuk was a park service ranger with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. He functioned as a law enforcement officer.
On March 17, Tactuk was assigned to patrol Honeymoon Island State Park located in Pinellas County, Florida on his All-Terrain Vehicle (ATV). Honeymoon Island is a 400-acre barrier island with four miles of beach.
That day in March of 2012, Officer Tactuk had a fatal encounter with a mentally ill man named James Clifton Barnes.
n an October 12, 2016 decision, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals outlined the factual chronology leading up to that encounter.
Accompanied by his aunt Paula Yount, Barnes went to the Honeymoon Island beach to conduct a baptismal. Something not explained by the court triggered an agitation in Barnes. The court simply said that he “began acting erratically by flailing, flopping, and thrusting his arms and body, and yelling loudly about a demon.”
Barnes was a big man, standing 5 feet and 10 inches tall weighing in at 290 pounds. His behavior that day, and the law enforcement response to it, was witnessed by at least sixteen people at the beach.
Officer Tactuk was patrolling the area when his attention was drawn to Barnes’ behavior. Yount left the water to speak with the officer about that behavior. Both the officer and the aunt tried to calm Barnes, urging him to get out of the water. He did not leave the water.
Police Escalating Non-Violent Confrontations to Violent
There are decisions made in officer involved confrontations with citizens that escalate a non-violent incident into a violent one. Officer Tactuk made a decision to go into the water to forcefully remove Barnes from the water.
At that moment, the appeals court observed, the officer believed he had probable cause to arrest Barnes for battery on Ms. Yount.
It didn’t take a rocket scientist to know what would inevitably happen. Barnes disobeyed Officer Tactuk’s order to get out of the water. The officer began striking the mentally ill man in the face as they struggled. Tactuk repeatedly ordered Barnes to comply; Barnes continued to resist. The officer finally managed to get Barnes into shallow water where he succeeded in getting one of Barnes’s hands cuffed.
Suddenly, Barnes managed to pull Officer Tactuk back into waist-deep water. The officer continued to hit the mentally ill man in the face as they struggled. The officer managed to place Barnes in a choke hold, and dragged him out of the water by the head.
Officer Ignores Pleas for Help and Cries to Stop Beating
All the while Barnes was crying out for “help” and pleading with Tactuk to “please stop.”
Ignoring the mentally ill man’s pleas, the officer continued to hit Barnes while simultaneously sending out a call for backup. Two eyewitnesses to the unfolding scene also called 911 for help.
After Barnes was pulled from the water, another eyewitness called 911, reporting that the mentally ill man had “calmed down” and was “just laying on the beach now with the state park ranger next to him.”
At that point, with Officer Tactuk kneeling beside Barnes, it would seem there was no need for the officer to pursue a further restraint. But that is not what happened—and here’s where the entire encounter reached a point of no return. The officer tried to secure the handcuffs to Barnes’s other arm. The mentally ill man started to resist again and refused to cooperate with the officer’s effort to cuff him.
What did Officer Tactuk do?
Officer Resumes the Beating
The appeals court said the officer climbed on top of Barnes and began hitting him again while continuing to try to get the handcuffs on Barnes’s other arm. Two bystanders jumped into fray—one holding Barnes’ legs and the other holding Barnes’s free arm. The mentally ill man responded by making grunting and growling sounds.
And what was the result of this unconscionable gang-bang on a mentally ill man?
The Eleventh Circuit answered that question this way:
“ … The handcuff was not placed on Barnes’ second arm in a normal fashion, and instead, one of Barnes’ arms was pulled over his head, with his elbow pointing toward the sky, and his other arm was twisted behind his back, in a manner that looked like a figure-eight. One bystander observed that an ‘eruption of blood and fluids’ spewed from Barnes’ mouth with each breath, and that Barnes was struggling to breath.”
Beating Gets Worse
Any reasonable person would think that the physical abuse would stop there. Well, it did not. It only got worse.
“At this point,” the appeals court said, “Tactuk got off of Barnes and pulled him further up onto the shore, and then straddled him while Barnes continued to resist. Tactuk pressed the emergency button on his radio …, identified himself, and said that he had a violent, mentally-ill person in custody. Tactuk broadcast that he needed ‘help’ at the north end of the island, and that the location was accessible only by ATV. As Barnes continued to struggle, Tactuk deployed pepper spray, shooting it into Barnes’ eyes. Tactuk struck Barnes in the face multiple times, and Barnes continued to resist.”
The Sheriff’s Marine Unit responded to Tactuk’s emergency call. Officer Kenneth Kubler ran his boat ashore as he watched Tactuk and Barnes struggling on the ground. As he approached the two men, Officer Kubler saw that Barnes was on his back “with his face out of the water.” He said the mentally man was struggling to get Tactuk off of him. Officer Kubler observed that Barnes “had blood on his mouth and face and that Tactuk was covered in blood.
At that point, Officer Tactuk had straddled Barnes, sitting on the handcuffed man’s stomach with his legs positioned under Barnes’s armpits.
One witness described the scene at the point. While Barnes was still screaming, the witness said the mentally ill man was starting to “wear down” and that “he wasn’t fighting as much” and that the situation seemed to be “under control.”
Second Officer Joins in the Abuse
The situation was not under enough control to suit the Sheriff’s Marine Unit officer. He joined the abuse of Barnes by positioning himself “between Barnes’ hips and knees and tried to stop Barnes from kicking, instructing Barnes to quit resisting.”
Both officers radioed dispatch requesting further assistance and an ambulance. Tactuk specifically requested “hobble restraints.” Barnes could be heard yelling and screaming in the background while Tactuk could be heard saying “stop resisting.”
The two officers rolled Barnes onto his stomach in an effort to put the handcuffs on properly. Barnes resisted and kicked. How did the officers respond to this resistance?
“ … Tactuk continued to hit Barnes, striking him in the face three times after Barnes hit Tactuk’s hand,” the Eleventh Circuit wrote. “Witnesses said that Kubler stood over Barnes and put his foot on Barnes’s buttocks, and one testified that Barnes was arching his back. Another witness testified that Kubler put his knee on Barnes’s back, and that Barnes was immobilized.”
The appeals court continued:
“Kubler warned Barnes to stop rising up or the officer would tase Barnes, but Barnes continued to resist. Kubler drew his Taser and gave Barnes a second warning, but Barnes kept struggling, and … he can be heard again yelling in the background on the dispatch radio transmission.”
Mentally Ill Man Beaten and Tased to Death
What happened next is beyond disturbing. It is shameful.
Officer Kubler tased Barnes a total of five times over a two-minute period.
Barnes was still and quiet. The officers uncuffed Barnes and attempted to put the handcuffs on properly. An off-duty fire department lieutenant arrived at the scene. He noticed Barnes was “blueish gray.”
“You need to get the handcuffs off him because he’s not breathing,” the lieutenant told the officers.
The two law enforcement officers removed the handcuffs and rolled Barnes onto his back. The officers then began chest compressions “because … the face trauma” prevented them from getting “an airway on him.”
The end of this tragic story came two days later when Barnes died from what the Medical Examiner said was “complications of asphyxia with contributory conditions of blunt trauma.” The ME also said that “Barnes had scattered abrasions, contusions, and lacerations, plus subgaleal hemorrhage and cerebral edema.”
Medical Examiner: Mentally Ill Man Beaten to Death
Put simply, Barnes had been beaten and suffocated to death.
Barnes’s family filed a civil rights lawsuit against Offices Kubler alleging that he used excessive force in violation of Barnes’s Fourth Amendment rights when he tased the mentally ill man after his arrest had been secured and he no longer posed a threat to anyone or risk of flight.
Officer Raises Qualified Immunity in Civil Rights Lawsuit
Officer Kubler pleaded a qualified immunity defense. The Eleventh Circuit rejected this defense, finding that the Barnes family had presented sufficient evidence for the matter to proceed to a jury for a trial on the merits. The appeals court observed that while the first, and perhaps the second tasings were justified, there was no justification for the third, fourth and fifth tasings administered after Barnes had been completely subdued.
Officer Tactuk and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection decided it was in their interests to settle out of court with the Barnes family. They recognized there was absolutely no defense for Officer Tactuk’s actions that contributed to Barnes’s death.
Officers Chose to Escalate Rather than De-escalate
There were so many points when this confrontation between an obviously mentally ill person and law enforcement could have been de-escalated. Instead, the officers chose to escalate the confrontation with use of force after force because they could not get a man incapable of rational thought to “stop resisting”—resistance that posed no real threat to anyone.
The end result: the mentally ill man died and the state law enforcement agencies responsible for the officers had to pay substantial damages.
Would CIT training have made a difference?
Hard to say. Training is only as good as the officer. Both these officers believed that force should be the first response to resistance. Training will not eradicate those character traits. Those kinds of officers have no business on the front lines of the to protect and serve the community.