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In early November, D.C. police entered David Kerstetter‘s Logan Circle home and shot and killed him. Police say Mr. Kerstetter had a knife, that there was a struggle. The crime scene shows no evidence of a struggle. On January 26, Osman Abdullahi was shot and killed by D.C. police after they entered his unlicensed group home at 830 7th Street NE. He had a knife. He used a metal pole as a weapon. He allegedly tried to attack the police. Witnesses say he urged the police to kill him. Abdullahi is the subject of this week’s cover story.
What did Kerstetter and Abdullahi have in common? They were both residents in crisis. Both suffered from mental illness. Both had stopped taking their meds.
The police knew Kerstetter. The police did not know Abdullahi.
The New York Police Department recently adopted a new policy. Any time a known mentally-ill person is the subject of a 911 dispatch, the officers rushing to the scene are notified. In a limited way, DMH did know about Abdullahi. In early December, he had called its helpline and requested services. The other men he was living with in that group house—most of them had been in the system at some point in their lives. Not to mention that the house was operated by Mark Spence; DMH knew him very, very well.
How to respond to the mentally ill has been an issue that the D.C. Police Department has refused to address. For years, they have fielded complaints from residents, from the Office of Police Compliants, and done very close to nothing. I wonder how many more times is the department going to put the lives of its officers at risk? How many more residents in crisis are going to have to die before the department starts to seriously look at its policies? And when is the D.C. Council going to hold hearings on the issue?
I had called Chief Lanier about these issues repeatedly in the wake of Kerstetter’s death. I e-mailed her directly twice. I called her office. I called her people. She never called me back. Not once. She never felt it necessary to address the circumstances of Kerstetter’s death—she had immediately declared the cops involved as probably justified—nor how her department handles residents in crisis. I have seen Lanier tend to grieving families with a grace and skill few officials can match. I find it difficult to imagine that Lanier hasn’t thought about this issue in a serious way.
I did call Assistant Chief Peter Newsham, who runs the Internal Affairs Bureau. I asked him about policy changes and the NYPD’s new warning system.
“It would be very helpful to know what the officers are walking into,” Newsham said. “We are definitely going to take a look at that…That’s something we’ll definitely look at.”
But what will the D.C. Police do about it?
*Undated photo of Abdullahi was provided by his family.