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This was the worst-case scenario.
Yesterday morning, the D.C. police department received a 911 call for a reported suicide attempt at 1325 13th Street NW. Two officers, a 20-year veteran and a rookie fresh out of the academy, took the call.
When they arrived on the scene, the officers found a man clutching a knife, according to a Washington Post story. It is yet unknown how much training the officers had in dealing with suicidal residents, in tamping down a volatile situation involving a citizen with extreme mental distress.
According to the Blade‘s more definitive account, the man, David Kerstetter, “had been suffering from bipolar disorder and had become severely depressed when his domestic partner died last year.” The Blade goes on to report that police were familiar with Kerstetter. They had gone to his house many times.
No one is saying publicly what the officers told Kerstetter or how they initially reacted to him when they first arrived. But apparently a scuffle ensued between the officers and Kerstetter. Suddenly, an already difficult situation became a deadly one.
D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier told the Post that at some point during the struggle, one of the officers, the veteran cop, fired his weapon. Kerstetter was shot. He was then taken to an area hospital where he was pronounced dead a short time later.
This is the scenario that police watchers have long dreaded. The Office of Police Complaints (OPC), in particular, has lobbied—-for years—-then-Chief Charles Ramsey, Lanier and the D.C. Council about upgrading the police department’s abilities to handle mentally-ill residents. We wrote about the problem this past April.
Philip Eure, OPC Executive Director, told City Paper that he saw enough citizen complaints related to mishandling a mentally-distressed resident that he made it a priority. “What I know is based on reviewing the complaints and the narratives,” Eure said at the time. “You have a variety of reactions to people who are mentally ill. There are some officers who have the natural empathy.…And you have other officers [who] because of a lack of good training don’t know how to respond. Some officers make fun of these people, laugh at them, mock them. Much of that is based on ignorance.”
Since September 2006, Eure has been fighting for the D.C. Police Department to adopt a new approach to dealing with the problem. He wanted the white shirts to co-opt the Memphis Police Department‘s “CIT” model. This involves training a core group of officers that would specialize in mental-health related cases. When a call for a suicide attempt would come in, these officers would handle it. This model has been adopted by police departments across the country.
Lanier, so far, has balked at adopting the CIT model.
Last spring, Commander Brian Jordan, the department’s point person on this subject, says he found no use-of-force problems. And yet, he came up short on the subject of training:
“Jordan could not exactly state how much time the rank and file spend on mental-health-related training. Nor could he say what officers are actually taught. ‘I don’t have the curriculum in front of me,’ he said. ‘Not all [of it] is mental health training. Some of it is about force investigation, some of it’s verbal judo.'”
Late this morning, I reached Eure to see if he’d comment on yesterday’s tragedy.
“It seems to be a tragic situation,” Eure says. “I really can’t say more. We are waiting to learn about it as well. I can say just generally speaking our agency continues to be concerned with MPD’s ability regardless of this incident to respond effectively to people with mental illnesses. We did a long set of recommendations. They have not adopted them. Those concerns continue.”
Whatever action the D.C. Police Department decides to take, it will be too late for David Kerstetter.