RALEIGH, N.C. - In April 2019, 30-year-old Soheil Antonio Mojarrad was shot eight times and killed by Raleigh police officer W.B. Edwards after police claim he refused to drop a knife and shouted obscenities at Edwards. Mojarrad had a history of mental health issues, compounded by being hit by a car, and officers had been called to the scene for a report of trespassing. His family said he was a loving, caring person who never met a stranger.
In January 2020, 52-year-old Keith Dutree Collins was shot six times and killed by Raleigh officer W.B. Tapscott after police claim he pointed a BB gun at the officer. Tapscott approached Collins after a report that Collins was acting strangely, and Collins refused to talk to the officer. His mother said he had a developmental disability and could only read at a third grade level, but loved everyone, despite facing many bullies in his life.
In both cases, the officer involved faced no charges in the death, following district attorney investigations that found Edwards and Tapscott used lawful force.
"People cannot pick on him anymore," his mother, Gloria Mayo, told ABC11 in February 2020. "They can't pick on him anymore. They cannot do anything to Keith anymore."
In an analysis of nearly 100 officer-involved shootings and use-of-force incidents across central North Carolina law enforcement agencies for the past eight years, the ABC11 I-Team found at least 39% of incidents involved a person experiencing a mental health crisis
or a person with a history of mental illness.
In the wake of these incidents, many advocates for
reform wonder whether police officers are equipped to
respond to mental health emergencies, and how cities
and states can better support their law enforcement
agencies to take care of the people whom they are
sworn to protect.
HANDLING A CRISIS
On a cold, rainy night in 2017, Gerard Atkinson felt desperate. Alone, he called the Verteran’s Suicide Hotline for help.
Instead of contacting a mental health provider, his call was forwarded to the Fayetteville Police Department.
“The help that I was expecting was not the one that showed up that night,” Atkinson said. Court documents show as officers approached, a bullet was fired, hitting a tree outside. Atkinson said he accidentally discharged the gun while setting it down and had no idea officers were on the way.
Atkinson said when he answered his door, he was face-to-face with a wall of weapons--afraid any one of the officers on the scene would pull the trigger if he made a sudden move.
Atkinson was arrested and spent three years in jail on attempted first-degree murder charges.
A representative for the Fayetteville Police Department said officers followed department protocol for a wellness check and he was arrested and taken into custody without incident after the weapon was fired. The representative added that it was the department’s understanding that Atkinson had access to mental health services while in jail, though the Fayetteville Police Department is not responsible for those services provided or for people held in the jail.
While Atkinson is receiving counseling now, he said the experience has left him hesitant to seek help if he gets to a place that low again.
“Do I call out for help? Do you remember what happened last time? Like this is the conversation I’m having with myself,” Atkinson said. “And that’s scary because you feel isolated again. Because even the help I tried to reach out to get at the last moment, I get treated in a manner that is inhumane. It doesn’t help. It doesn’t make me want to reach out for help unless something changes within the system, their procedures for handling mental health crisis.”
Atkinson said he continued to experience suicidal ideations in jail, feeling helpless and forgotten.
“I was just so low inside,” he said. “I felt like I wasn’t getting any help. Everyone just forgot about me.”
His charges were dismissed in 2019 and he was eventually released from jail, pleading guilty to obstructing a police officer and discharging a gun within city limits.
But though the charges are gone, his depression is ongoing.
Data from the Fayetteville Police Department shows officers have responded to 643 suicide-related calls since 2015--on the low end for central North Carolina.
A Fayetteville Police Department spokesperson explained this
number is likely higher and it is impossible to know the true
number of mental-health related calls due to the way the data is
Many of the FPD officers are trained in crisis intervention
along with all their dispatchers.
Activists and community organizers like Dawn Blagrove at
Emancipate NC say law enforcement, however, are not
equipped to respond to these mental health calls.
“What we know for sure is law enforcement all over this country
has become the de facto mental health system,” Blagrove said.
“As a result, we are asking law enforcement officers to function
and behave in situations that they are not trained or equipped to
respond to as it relates to mental health issues.”
And as many know, nationwide and right here in North Carolina,
some of these incidents are deadly.
"The help that I was expecting was not the one that showed up that night."
"I didn’t want it to get to a point where it was so out of control. That’s why I reached out for help."
"Do I call out for help? Do you remember what happened last time?"
FAMILIES WITHOUT ANSWERS
In August 2020, Sabara Fisher-Roberts was away from home when her husband was shot and killed by Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office deputies.
“It’s hard for me to come over here,” Fisher-Roberts said, walking through the home where her husband, Adrian Roberts, a US military veteran with severe post traumatic stress disorder, died.
When Roberts returned from Kuwait, the horrors of war filled his head and their home. She was desparate to heal him.
“I didn’t want it to get so out of control,” Fisher-Roberts said. “That was my thing. I didn’t want it to get to a point where it was so out of control. That’s why I reached out for help.”
She finally contacted authorities to initiate an order of involuntary commitment on her husband--a legal proceeding that requires hospitalization and monitoring if a person is believed to be a danger to themselves or others.
When deputies arrived at the home, officials with the sheriff’s office said Roberts charged at deputies with a machete. They opened fire.
“It’s a shame that a man who put his life on the line to fight for this country lost his life in his own home because he couldn’t ultimately get the help that he needed,” Fisher-Roberts said. “He had family advocate for him to get the help he needed but no one would listen.”
Unfortunately, it’s not hard to find other stories like Adrian Roberts’ across the country, even here in the Triangle. But in order to solve a problem, you have to know the scope of it.
Here in North Carolina, that isn’t easy. Officer-involved shootings aren’t tracked in any state or national databases, so the ABC-11 I-Team decided to make our own.
We sorted through our own ABC11 website, the Washington Post officer-involved shootings database and the Mapping Police Violence database to find all incidents in central North Carolina dating back to 2013. Reading through incident reports, news articles and family testimony, we classified each incident as mental-health related if the person shot by officers was either experiencing a mental health crisis, had a history of mental health issues, had previously been the subject of a Silver Alert, indicated suicidal ideations or suicidal behaviors (such as indicating they wanted to be killed by police officers), or was experiencing a hallucination or severe intoxication from drugs or medication.
Counting 98 incidents in total across 22 counties, at least 39% involved a person
with a history of mental illness or experiencing a mental health crisis.
“I would not want it to happen to another family,” Fisher-Roberts said.
“I would not want another family to have to go through this ordeal because it is
horrible. It’s horrible. I have three children who constantly ask what happened
to their dad.”
But the families of La'Vante Biggs, Kyron Hinton, Marcel Jordan, David Brooks Jr
and dozens of others know her pain too well.
“There has to be something in place,” Fisher-Roberts said.
RESPONDING WITH CARE
Almost every community in America is discussing how to handle these situations, and whether police officers are the appropriate first responders in a mental health crisis.
One North Carolina town has taken a unique approach to policing these calls for decades--and said it has seen success in community response because of it.
For more than 40 years, the Chapel Hill Police Department has chosen helping people over handcuffs. Four crisis counselors work alongside uniformed officers to respond to every mental health call the department receives. One of those counselors, Lindsay Campbell said she sees the value in working as part of one of these teams.
“You can’t always arrest your way out of a problem,” Campbell said. “For so many people there is an underlying concern, whether it’s domestic violence at home, or substance abuse, or lack of housing, whatever that might be. Part of our role is to go and address those needs, and a lot of times there are multiple needs at once.”
Officers receive crisis intervention training--just like in many other departments. However, they understand that trained crisis counselors, like Campbell, can better respond to a mental health situation--and the goal is to provide help, rather than incarcerate.
“One of our primary goals is to redirect away from the judicial system,” Campbell said. “So for example, if someone is having a mental health emergency and due to their mental illness has committed some sort of crime, we want to really be able to access that person and understand where this behavior is coming from. So really, instead of getting cited or getting arrested, if they need mental health care, say at the hospital, we can advocate for that on scene.”
It’s hard to quantify the impact of the department’s approach, but officers working alongside the counselors said they can see the benefit.
“I think that’s really important about Chapel Hill where we’ve implemented something that’s not just police one time or police whenever 911 is called, it’s follow up down the line and let’s get you help and let’s point you to this resource that you didn’t know about,” said Chapel Hill officer Madison Parker.
ABC11’s analysis found no officer-involved shootings by the Chapel Hill Police Department in the last eight years.
But some argue that police should be removed from the equation entirely.
"You can't always arrest your way out of a problem. For so many people there is an underlying concern."
Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) is a community policing organization in Eugene, Oregon, founded in 1989 by White Bird Clinic. Each CAHOOTS team consists of an emergency medical technician and a crisis counselor--both of whom arrive in plain clothes and in a vehicle different from a police car, with no lights or sirens.
“There’s not a law enforcement presence on nearly anything that we do,” said director of consulting Tim Black. “Our response teams are unarmed--we don’t carry pepper spray or a taser or even wear vests or anything like that, and we have a lot of opportunity to really approach these situations more through a lens of de-escalation and stabilization as opposed to enforcement.”
While CAHOOTS is primarily a non-emergency operation, Black said the city’s emergency operations center will contact CAHOOTS teams when someone places a 9-1-1 call related to mental health, homelessness, or addiction.
A police officer is only called to help the CAHOOTS team if there is a safety concern. But Black said out of 20,000 calls for service in 2020, only 350 required police assistance, fewer than one per day. And he added that many officers in the Eugene area are grateful for the CAHOOTS assistance.
“Most patrol officers didn’t sign up with the police department because they were really excited about mental health and social services,” Black said.
And Black said the CAHOOTS model offers more options for assistance--while traditional police officers can only take a person in crisis to the hospital or to jail, a crisis counselor can bring them to any number of community organizations or urgent care clinics--much like the co-response teams in Chapel Hill.
Call or text "hope" to the North Carolina Hopeline at 1-855-587-3463
Find a Mental Health or Substance Abuse Crisis Center in your county: http://crisissolutionsnc.org/
Call WakeBrook UNC Medical Center at
Wake County residents can call mobile crisis services through Therapeutic Alternatives at
Call Atrium Health Behavioral Health Hotline at 704-444-2400
Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at
ALTERNATIVES TO CALLING THE POLICE IN NORTH CAROLINA
Image Credit: Bill Holderfield for White Bird Clinic
La'vante Biggs (21)
Keith Dutree Collins (52)
David Brooks Jr. (45)
Marcel Jordan (33)
Tina Medlin (50)
Soheil Antonio Mojarrad (30)
Black says the CAHOOTS model isn’t just effective at creating safer communities--it also saves law enforcement an estimated $8 million per year in Eugene by reducing the number of calls to which police have to respond.
“For every dollar spent on the CAHOOTS program, 10 dollars are going back into the community, specifically within what we do to impact policing and reduce criminal legal involvement for someone,” Black said. “Broad strokes, the way we are able to save so much money for the police department is because we are handling so many of these situations that don’t need to have police respond.”
While Black said the CAHOOTS model is working well in other cities, like Olympia, Wash., and Denver, Colo, it’s hard to know how well other forms of alternative policing work nationwide because of a lack of data.
Dr. Beth Bjerregaard at UNC Charlotte researched crisis intervention teams in 2011 and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department's Crisis Intervention Program in 2016. Her research found it was overwhelmingly difficult to measure success due to the lack of collected data.
Since then--little data has been produced on the subject.
“I think it's very important to know, like I said, what is actually working,” Bjerregaard said. “What are the evidence based practices that we can be implementing that are going to have a positive outcome in our community? Are they going to increase officer safety, they're going to increase the safety of the consumers? Is it going to help the consumers get treated?”
She said a lack of data may also impact departments’ ability to get funding to kickstart these programs.
Meanwhile, many cities like Raleigh, Durham and Fayetteville have few alternatives to traditional policing, though Raleigh is working to implement a program similar to Chapel Hill’s, known as ACORNS (Addressing Crises through Outreach, Referrals, Networking and Service). The department is currently hiring three social workers for the program, a representative said. Durham City Council invited research firm RTI to present alternative policing models at a recent meeting.
This topic is also one that officials and advocates across the state identified as one that needs to be tackled to improve North Carolina's criminal justice system.
Governor Roy Cooper's Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice recommending local departments' respond more appropriately to situations concerning mental illness' and add crisis intervention training.
Those who have had officers respond to their crisis--like Atkinson, who had Fayetteville police respond to his suicide attempt--believe that adding a trained counselor would be a step in the right direction.
“I think it would have made a world of difference. Even having them there to speak on my behalf or something,” Atkinson said. “Not just, ‘ok, I think this happened, let’s put him there and deal with it later.’ That’s not a good solution because everybody hurts in that aspect, I hurt, residual effects that trickle down to my family, people who surround me, everybody else hurts.”
By Samantha Kummerer and Maggie Green
Sabara Fisher-Roberts, Adrian Roberts, and family (children's faces blurred for privacy)
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