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'Five police shootings, four mentally ill victims'



Last modified: Sunday, September 25, 2011
It's a tally without precedent in New Hampshire. Since January, five people have been shot by the police, four of them fatally. And all but one was in the throes of a mental health crisis at the time.

In each case, state authorities concluded that the officer who fired the fatal shot was responding to a direct threat to himself or someone else: a gun pointed at him, a man charging with a hatchet, another wielding a sword, a young child in danger. Findings by the attorney general's office say those officers were left with little or no choice and that the shootings were justified.

But the scope of these official investigations is limited to that narrow legal question.

They do not consider the larger questions: whether the confrontations could have been avoided in the first place; whether additional mental health services would have kept the victims out of harm's way; whether the officers who responded had any expertise in dealing with mentally ill or suicidal people in crisis.

Twenty-five people have been shot, 14 of them fatally, by the police in New Hampshire since 1998, the earliest year the statistics are available. Ten of the people shot during that period showed signs of mental or emotional distress, including the four this year.

No one in the mental health or law enforcement communities has spoken out about the spate of shootings this year. Only the families of those killed have publicly questioned whether there could have been outcomes that didn't result in death.

"I don't think anybody has put it all together yet," said Ken Norton, executive director of the state chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. "I think we have tended to be aware that there is one here and one there."

Attorney General Michael Delaney has had reason to look at these shootings perhaps more closely than anyone. Delaney said it's premature to see a trend, either in the number of officer-involved shootings or in the cases involving the mentally ill. Nor does Delaney believe the increase warrants immediate and sweeping changes in police training and practice.

"There are questions," Delaney said. "There have been a number of these, and that is unusual. What I believe they most have in common are individuals, whether with mental or emotional difficulties, who are armed and exhibiting aggressive conduct to the police."

He continued: "I think with all of these instances, the officers' approach of de-escalating the situation and bringing it to a peaceful resolution is not always possible."

 The first of five

 

The first of this year's five officer-involved shootings happened on Jan. 6, when Larry Minassian, 52, of Salem, called the police threatening suicide. When the Salem police responded, they found Minassian outside his home, clutching a Bible in one hand and a 12-inch sword in the other. He told the police he had "lost his faith" and believed the FBI was after him, according to the attorney general's report.

Minassian had been arrested by the Salem police at least twice before, in 2008 and 2009, and had been drinking and combative both times, according to news accounts. This time, Minassian was sober but armed. Besides the sword, he had a knife tucked into the back of his waistband.

The state's report described the scene as chaotic: Officers closed the road to traffic but witnesses were nearby, including one man who recognized Minassian and shouted to him to drop his weapon. More officers arrived, and some of them pulled their guns. A rescue crew was parked nearby, and one officer climbed a fence to position himself behind Minassian, who was yelling.

In an interview with the Monitor last week, Minassian said he called the police in a desperate attempt to get their attention. Minassian suffers from extreme paranoia, according to his attorney, and had been trying to convince the police he was being set up on drug charges.

"I felt (the police) were brushing me off," said Minassian. "I didn't think they were taking me too seriously, and this was the only way I thought they would pay attention."

Richard Sheehan, his attorney, said Minassian was overwhelmed and panicked by the eight officers who arrived. "This wasn't suicide by cop," Sheehan said. "This was frustration followed by chaos, followed by bullets. I don't know how we went from Point A - calling for help - to him having several rounds in his body."

One officer tried to assure Minassian he was not under investigation for drug sales. Another told Minassian the police were there to help. Those comments were lost in the chaos of the scene, Sheehan said.

Without warning, Minassian charged toward the police with the sword raised above his head, the attorney general's report said. Minassian was shot six times by three officers. He lost his left leg from those injuries. The police had called for a less powerful beanbag gun to disable him but it had not arrived by the time Minassian was shot, according to the state's report.

Bleeding and unable to stand or move, Minassian was handcuffed behind his back and rushed to the hospital. He has been charged with reckless conduct and criminal threatening.

Though Minassian insisted he never intended to hurt anyone or to kill himself, the police did not know that.

"When you are responding to these calls and someone has a weapon and they are threatening to use it, whether they are mentally ill or not, it is still a deadly force situation," said Salem Deputy Police Chief Shawn Patten. "Our intent (with criminal charges) is not to put Mr. Minassian in jail for the rest of his life. We want him to get the help he needs to have a healthy and happy life. But you can't discount the fact that he put these officers in a position to have to use deadly force."

 'Bad things happen'

 

The fatal shootings of Wayne Martin Jr., 29, of Concord; James Breton, 50, of Manchester; Shelly Naroian, 47, of Hillsboro; and Christopher Seksinsky, 39, of Winchester followed over the next six months. All but Breton, who was killed by the state police during a 37-hour standoff in Manchester, were mentally ill.

Martin, whose treatment for schizophrenia was being monitored by Riverbend Community Mental Health, refused to leave his apartment for several hours when Concord police officers came to take him to the state psychiatric hospital at Riverbend's request. Martin was shot when he emerged from the apartment and charged officers with a hatchet.

Threats of suicide brought the police to the homes of Naroian and Seksinsky, and both were shot when they threatened the police with weapons, the state reports said.

Law enforcement, mental health experts and others have attributed the increase in encounters between the police and mentally ill people to the poor economy and cuts to mental health services.

"We've said this before: The system is in crisis," said Roland Lamy, executive director of the Community Behavioral Health Association, which oversees the state's 10 local mental health clinics. "We have fewer acute care beds and fewer inpatient (beds). These people who have acute care episodes are pushed back down into their communities, and bad things happen.

"This is not said to be dramatic," Lamy continued. "This is really about life or death."

Louis Josephson, CEO of Riverbend Community Mental Health in Concord, has drawn a similar conclusion. He pointed to increase in criminal defendants who also have mental health or substance abuse issues. Mixing a capability for violence with instability or intoxication is often dangerous - to the individual, the police and the public, he said.

"It's clear to me that there have been cuts to the mental health system, and there are more and more people with untreated mental health issues out there," Josephson said. "It's the group that is not in treatment that has really been expanding over the last few years because of cuts and an increased demand on the system."

The police encounter these kinds of volatile situations frequently and resolve the vast majority of incidents peacefully, through conversation or with weapons less lethal than guns. "Ninety-nine percent of the time, we can get these people into custody and get them the help they need or to a facility that can help them," said Patten, Salem's deputy police chief.

In the fiscal year that ended in July, the Concord police responded to at least 640 calls involving people with mental health problems, acting Police Chief John Duval said. Martin, the schizophrenic man killed in March, was one of them. He was also the exception.

More common are resolutions like the one that occurred on Downing Street in November. Officer Katherine Marcos responded to a report of a man armed with a baseball bat and a fire extinguisher who was hitting vehicles with the bat. According to a police affidavit, the man raised the bat over his head and walked toward Marcos claiming he was Jesus.

Marcos, her gun drawn, repeatedly told the man to drop the bat. He didn't and took two more steps toward her, the affidavit said. "I told (the man) that if he put down the bat and fire extinguisher, I would put my gun back in my holster," Marcos wrote in her affidavit. The man complied and was taken into custody.

He was hospitalized for his mental health issues and charged with criminal threatening, criminal mischief and reckless conduct. He recently pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing.

In Manchester recently, an officer and detective received medals for resolving a call without violence when they persuaded a suicidal teenager to put down a knife he was holding to his throat. Detective Mike LaVallee and Officer Nate Lindstat got the boy talking about his problems and assured him they could help.

Lindstat had just finished Manchester's specialized training for mental health-related calls, and he recognized the boy from the city basketball courts. That brought valuable expertise and a rapport into the room, LaVallee said. The teenager eventually agreed to go to the hospital, and an officer rode in the ambulance with him. The teenager later wrote both a letter thanking them for saving his life.

"We were in there 45 minutes, and he had the knife to his throat the whole time," LaVallee said. "It was absolutely frightening."

 Training options

 

Delaney isn't sure it's possible to explain why some cases end in death when so many don't. Mental health experts interviewed for this story were also at a loss.

Richard Cohen, executive director of Concord's Disabilities Rights Center, which advocates for people with mental and physical disabilities, said his office hasn't investigated the circumstances of each case to know what might have been done differently. But he said he intends to raise the subject with an adult fatality review committee he's on.

"The greater question," Cohen said, "is how many of these folks were or should have been part of the mental health system? If they were, were they getting the right services? And if they weren't did that lead to them acting out in this way?"

Minassian had received almost no mental health treatment before being shot; he said he had not thought seriously about it, in part because he didn't have a job or insurance to pay for it. Naroian had been hospitalized twice and was on medications for her bipolar and mood disorders, but she was also abusing medication not prescribed to her, her family said. Martin had almost daily oversight from Riverbend, and Seksinsky had seen therapists but was not taking all of his medication for mental illness because he couldn't afford it.

Cohen said the Disabilities Rights Center has previously called on lawmakers to require more training for police officers handling mental health calls. The request never made it past committee discussions because there was no money for expanded training, Cohen said.

All new police recruits learn how to handle volatile, armed encounters at the police academy. And they learn techniques for interacting with people with mental illness. The academy also offers refresher courses on handling mental health calls, but officers are not required to take those.

The Manchester and Rochester police departments have gone to the greatest lengths to prepare officers; both have created crisis intervention teams that respond to all calls involving people with mental health issues. Training for those teams, however, takes 40 hours per officer, which means a department must pay overtime to the officer who covers the shift of the trainee. Manchester police officials said they have no doubt the investment has been worth it.

Sgt. Ron Mello oversees the new unit, which graduated its first 15 officers in March. The unit responded to 63 calls between March and August without injuries to officers or the person involved. "We would like to see this 40-hour class be standard (in Manchester)," Mello said. "It's that important."

Other departments have pursued less expensive training options. The Concord police had Riverbend staff work with officers on all three shifts last year on communication techniques and recognizing how mental health problems can affect a person's behavior. The Salem and Hillsboro police have not offered additional training specific to mental health calls.

In fact, most departments in New Hampshire do not have policies spelling out how to respond to such calls. Manchester does and Hillsboro drafted one in August, three months after its shooting.

Hillsboro's new policy doesn't differentiate between mentally ill and intoxicated people. Hillsboro police Chief David Roarick said that's because both display similar behavior or signs of diminished capacity. In Concord, where two mentally ill men have been shot and killed by police officers in the last five years - Martin in March and Clyde Gauntt in 2006 - the police department is drafting a policy now.

 Real-life limits

 

Police officials in some of the communities where shootings have occurred this year said they aren't convinced there is a need to do more training or policy creation. Departments have limited time to begin with for all kinds of training - it's four hours a month in Hillsboro, for example - with many mandatory topics to cover, such as firearms training and use of handcuffs or pepper spray.

Roarick, Hillsboro's chief, said when he drafted his new policy pertaining to mentally ill people, he saw that many of the points were already covered in existing policies, like those covering the use of force, protective custody and search and seizure. To a great extent, police officials see these calls as routine police work.

"We don't want the police to become the first responders for mental health issues in our communities," Delaney said. "We need to have the proper community-based programs in place to assist them. The police are there to ensure public safety."

The mental health experts interviewed for this story didn't disagree.

Elaine de Mello of the state chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness teaches the police how best to interact with the mentally ill. She said she would not second-guess a police officer who had shot someone who was threatening him with a knife, gun or other weapon. "When weapons are involved, all bets are off," she said.

Many police officials and mental health experts described a close working relationship with each other that allows them to resolve most mental health-related calls without injuries. Officers in the cities and towns that had shootings this year said they routinely let their local mental health clinic know when a client is acting erratically. And clinical staff rely heavily on the police when they need help returning a client to the state hospital.

"They have consulted with us on safety issues," said Ken Snow, a vice president with The Mental Health Center of Greater Manchester. "And over the years we have done some training for officers. I have a great deal of respect for the way the police handle these calls."

Most times, though, the incidents don't involve people who are armed. And when they do, it becomes strictly a police matter, law enforcement and mental health experts said.

"The police are put in a situation where they have to respond," Roarick said. "When someone has a gun and is facing law enforcement officers, that is not the time where you say, 'Maybe we can call somebody.' "

(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 369-3323 or at atimmins@cmonitor.com. Maddie Hanna can be reached at 369-3321 or at mhanna@cmonitor.com.)