By: Michael Pope
August 25, 2015
Leaders in Fairfax County may be on the verge of taking a different approach to mental illness, especially how law enforcement confronts those with mental illness. That's an issue that has raised alarms after two recent deaths, one at the hands of a police officer and another at the hands of sheriff's deputies.
"Police officers have increasingly become the first responders when a citizen is in the midst of a psychiatric crisis," says a report crafted by the Mental Health Subcommittee of the Ad Hoc Police Police Practices Commission (pdf). "Despite the minor nature of these crimes, encounters between persons with mental illness and the police can escalate, sometimes with tragic consequences."
Such was the case in two recent high profile cases. One was in 2010, when David Masters was shot and killed on Richmond Highway. Police kept the name of the officer secret for months, and they concealed the dashboard video footage secret for years. As it turns out, Masters suffered from mental illness and the confrontation was prompted to a suspicion that he stole flowers from a nearby business.
More recently, five deputy sheriffs at the Fairfax County jail hit Natasha McKenna, a woman suffering from schizophrenia, multiple times with a Taser stun gun, leading to her death. She was handcuffed at the time, prompting to harsh criticism of the sheriff's office.
Number and diagnoses of inmates with mental illness in Virginia. (Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services)
"There are a number of jurisdictions nationally and even here in Virginia that already do this very well, in fact do it better than Fairfax County does," says Del. Marcus Simon (D-53), chairman of the subcommittee. "We want to encourage the county to not view this as simply a police problem and a police training problem but to try and figure out if there's a better way to deal with them than simply warehousing them in the county jail."
Ever since the institutions that once housed people with mental illness shut down decades ago, jails across the country have become de facto psychiatric facilities. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, about 40 percent of adults who experience serious mental illness will come into contact with the police and the criminal justice system at some point in their lives. And nearly half of all fatal shootings by law enforcement locally and nationally involve persons with mental illnesses.
According to Fairfax County Sheriff Stacey Kincaid, about half of all Fairfax County inmates have mental health and/or co-occurring substance abuse disorders.
"There are people who are charged with minor crimes like trespass and being a nuisance who are wandering the streets or get into trouble because of mental illness," says Pete Earley, an author who has written about the subject of mental illness. "These are not hardcore criminals, and they deserve and need to get into treatment, not punished."
One is the creation of crisis assessment sites, which would receive those who would otherwise end up in the jail. Another recommendation calls for additional mobile units that can provide on-site evaluation, treatment and crisis intervention. Yet another key recommendations is the creation of a new docket at the county court, which would allow judges who have received specialized training to consider cases involving mental health concerns outside of the normal crush of business.
These are all best practices that the subcommittee learned are commonplace in many parts of the country but not happening in Fairfax County, where the Sheriff's Office has the lowest level training for mental illness in Northern Virginia.
"Fairfax County was behind for a variety of reasons, one was a lack of leadership," says Earley. "You had people in the judiciary who were strongly opposed to mental-health dockets or getting involved. You had people in the police department who saw this as kind of a hug-a-thug program."
Union on officer charged in shooting: ‘We could all be Adam Torres’
Let’s see if you qualify as being anything like Adam Torres
You shoot a guy with his hands in the air, for no reason, in front of dozens of witnesses and the killing is broadcasted all over the world…..and you don’t arrested. Would that happen to you?
Even though the world watched you shoot the guy with his hand sin the air, the police refuse to release you name to the press. Would that happen to you?
Your employer gets the public to pay $2,000,000 to the family of the guy you shot, but you don’t pay a dime. Would that happen to you?
After you shoot the guy with his hands in the air you don’t lose your job, you remain on the payroll and are basically given two years off with pay and full benefits. Would that happen to you?
By Justin Jouvenal August 25 at 10:16 PM
A Fairfax County police union is strongly defending an officer charged in the 2013 killing of an unarmed Springfield man, calling his arrest “unbelievable” and blasting the handling of the case by the county’s top prosecutor, police department and its leaders.
The Fairfax Coalition of Police Local 5000 released a long and sharply worded statement Monday, a week after one of its members, Officer Adam D. Torres, was indicted by a special grand jury in the fatal shooting of John Geer, 46, during a domestic-dispute call.
“Officer Torres didn’t come to work that day looking to hurt or kill anyone,” the statement reads. “He didn’t get out of the car looking to hurt or kill anyone. What became abundantly clear soon after arriving on the scene that day almost two years ago was that he was dealing with an armed irrational subject that had made numerous threats to friends, family and police officers.”
The statement, from President Sean Corcoran, later added of Fairfax County police officers, “we could all be Adam Torres.”
The union also attacked Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh (D) for citing Torres’s “deteriorating” mental state at the time of the shooting in successfully arguing against bond for Torres at a hearing last week.
Among other issues, Morrogh told a judge that Torres had told his supervisors that his wife was having an affair and that she had traveled to Hawaii to be with a boyfriend before the shooting. The union said the argument was based on “conjecture, rumor and fallacies.”
“Hearing this salacious argument from what is supposed to be an officer of the court of the highest integrity was enough to make one retch,” the statement reads.
The statement went on to ding the judge who denied Torres bond as well as the police department and county officials for failing to support Torres and other officers on the force.
The statement is significant because it is the first from rank-and-file officers since Torres’s indictment and takes a sharply different tone from that of county leaders, who said Torres’s case should spur changes in how the department handles police shootings and communicates with the public.
It also highlights tensions between officers and Morrogh, after The Washington Post reported last week that Morrogh was angry that an internal affairs commander had secretly recorded a conversation with one of his deputies during the Geer investigation in February. Morrogh did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Torres has been charged with second-degree murder in the killing of Geer on Aug. 29, 2013. After being called to Geer’s home because he had fought with his partner, officers got into a 42-minute standoff with Geer as he stood in the doorway.
Geer showed officers a gun and said he wasn’t afraid to use it, officers at the scene told investigators. He then placed it on the ground and stood with his hands resting on top of a storm door. At one point, he told a negotiator that he didn’t want to die.
But Torres suddenly fired a single shot at Geer, who retreated inside his home and died.
Torres later told officers that Geer had quickly moved his hands downward as if reaching for a gun, but six other witnesses said Geer kept his hands up.
Don Geer, John Geer’s father, who witnessed the incident, and the family’s attorney, Mike Lieberman, said the union’s characterization of the situation that led to Geer’s shooting was not accurate.
“I’m quite sure John didn’t expect to die that day,” Lieberman said.
“If one was to read the record, John asked Torres to put his gun down and told the officers he didn’t want to die that day. He spoke calmly to them for 45 minutes with his hands above his head,” he added.
In response to the statement, Fairfax County Police Chief Edwin C. Roessler Jr. wrote in an e-mail that the police department “will always maintain the greatest respect for the criminal justice system, those who are tasked with its administration, and all the citizens who are called to serve their community as part of the justice process.”