Over the past few years, wrongful death lawsuits filed against law enforcement officers in Mobile have cropped up almost in tandem with national stories about the use of force by police — something that has been scrutinized recently after a string of incidents resulting in the death of several unarmed citizens.
In Alabama, those stories have shared column inches with others about continued funding cuts to mental health services in the state, while even further cuts are proposed as a possible solution to the state’s ongoing budget crisis. However, in some circumstances, authorities say the two go hand in hand.
Mobile resident Ray Anson Mitchell suffered from mental illness, according a wrongful death lawsuit filed in federal court last month, the latest in an almost predictable succession alleging the Mobile Police Department (MPD) used “excessive, unreasonable and unnecessary deadly force.”
Though Mitchell’s family claim his condition was treated with medication and “he had no history of violent behavior,” Mitchell undoubtedly had a history of arrests in Mobile County. According jail logs, Mitchell faced multiple charges for drug possession, carrying an unregistered weapon and several separate instances of failure to obey and resisting arrest.
Those charges took place over a period from 1999 to 2007, but in the nearly seven years afterward, Mitchell apparently wasn’t charged with a crime in Mobile County. In 2013, however, during his last encounter with the MPD, Mitchell was shot and killed by two officers.
Mitchell vs. Mobile
According the current lawsuit, Mitchell was said to have frequently visited his cousin Marion Joseph Malley at the home of his step-aunt, Yansean Frye. However, after Malley moved out of Frye’s home, the lawsuit states Mitchell continued to drop in for unannounced and apparently unwelcome visits.
“After he moved out, [Mitchell] never seemed to accept, understand or process the fact that [Malley] no longer lived there,” the lawsuit reads. “Although the visits were, at times, annoying, frustrating and/or awkward, he never posed a threat of harm to them, nor was he ever perceived as frightening or threatening by either of them.”
According the suit, Frye, who has worked as a police dispatcher, made Mitchell’s mental history clear to authorities on the two occasions she called them for assistance in removing Mitchell from her property.
One of those instances was in May 2013, which ended with Mitchell leaving the premises without incident. The second time was in the pre-dawn hours of Sept. 5, 2013.
“The defendants [Officers Steven] Chandler and [Miranda] Wilson then entered Frye’s backyard, whereupon after making contact with [Mitchell], he began to flee,” the lawsuit claims. “At no time did [Mitchell] pose any threat of harm to the defendants or any third parties. Rather, his only conduct was his attempting to flee them or to avoid their attempts to capture him. Notwithstanding his nonviolent, nonthreatening behavior, defendants Chandler and Wilson unlawfully employed deadly force by shooting him with their service weapons.”
There does seem to be a point of contention between those claims and the initial statements police made about the incident when it occurred. According a news release issued at the time, “Mitchell was shot by officers after he tried to shoot a taser gun at an officer he had wrestled from police,” which was after he had “already tased a female officer.”
Other use-of-force lawsuits
Mitchell’s is not the only recent case related to police use-of-force and suspected mental illness. In March, Lagniappe detailed the evidentiary material in the wrongful death lawsuit brought by the widow of Gregory Rachel, who stopped breathing after a confrontation with MPD officers in May 2012.
According to several witnesses and a statement of evidence later adopted by U.S. District Court Judge William Steele, Rachel, a white, 42-year-old business owner, was tased, beaten, kicked, punched, hog-tied and sat upon by officers responding to a domestic disturbance. After he was subdued, the officers neither checked Rachel’s vital signs nor called for medical attention until after they realized he wasn’t breathing, several minutes after the arrest.
The city of Mobile, former Police Chief Michael Williams and two senior officers were dismissed from the suit in June, but in the same order, Judge Steele upheld certain claims against MPD officers Chris McCann and John Jackson related to excessive force, deliberate indifference and wrongful death. McCann has since appealed the decision and a spokesperson for the city said the officers are being represented by private legal counsel.
Speaking hypothetically about the legal process, Police Chief James Barber said this week if the city is removed from a wrongful death lawsuit but individual officers remain as defendants, the officers may have been indemnified for their actions through qualified immunity, but the suit may continue to go forward to see if the officers were acting within their duties or if their actions were wanton or malicious.
In another case, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a notice June 29 denying a review of an 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling regarding the death of Daniel Mingo, a 25-year-old black man with a history of mental illness who led MPD officers on a foot chase after being stopped for a traffic violation in January 2010. According to a lawsuit originally filed in circuit court the week after the incident, the officers electrocuted Mingo with a taser, beat him and stripped him of his clothes before dragging him nude and handcuffed over asphalt and glass.
After Mingo was apprehended, he was also hog-tied — or detained in four-point restraints — in the back of a patrol car while an ambulance took 15 to 20 minutes to arrive. His attorney at the time told the Mobile Press-Register that Mingo was “brain dead” when he was admitted to the hospital. He died one week later after being taken off life support.
In affidavits, officers suggested Mingo actually caused several of his injuries and separate autopsies also gave conflicting causes of death. One, conducted by the state medical examiner, listed the same cause of death that would be listed for Rachel two years later: “excited delirium.”
In April, a spokesperson for the Alabama Department of Public Health said there have only been six cases statewide since 1999 that listed excited delirium as the cause of death. Four of the six occurred in Mobile County, while the other two occurred in Tuscaloosa and Lauderdale counties.
Daniel’s mother, Cynthia Mingo, eventually pursued a claim that the city violated her son’s constitutional rights, but U.S. District Court Judge Kristi DuBose found that the plaintiff did not successfully argue that the MPD failed to properly train its officers to control suspects displaying signs of mental illness.
Barber said the MPD has a well-defined Memorandum Order on mental illness but if the situation is volatile, officers are trained on the “use of force continuum,” which begins with simple verbal commands but can escalate to deadly force.
“Just because a person is suffering from [emotional disturbance] or drug-induced psychosis, doesn’t mean they are not a threat to their safety or others, so whatever is going on, that officer has to render that situation safe,” he said. “Officers in basic training learn to recognize emotional disturbance and excited delirium … but if time permits and the person is non-combative, we’d obviously rather send him to a hospital than to jail. But oftentimes when a person is psychotic, a confrontation will occur, usually that is an attempt to restrain, and you run into extraordinary physical strength so we usually want to bring in additional personnel …”
A third lawsuit, involving a nearly deaf and mute schizophrenic plaintiff, Antonio Love, was brought against the MPD in 2010 after officers responded to a Dollar General where Love was locked inside its bathroom. The manager of the store called police after the door remained locked for 45 minutes and he couldn’t get a response from the occupant.
Love testified that he was nauseated and having a schizophrenic episode, and his deafness prevented him from hearing officers identify themselves or give commands as they attempted to gain access to the bathroom. Eventually, they deployed pepper spray under the door and used a pry bar to open it, before tasing Love three times after he charged at them with an open umbrella.
In that case, U.S. District Court Judge Callie Granade also ruled in favor of the defendants but, win or lose, Barber said the possibility of litigation or public outcry can have a profound effect on effective police work.
“Officers are probably far more fearful of legal and public consequences than they are of any bad guy on the street,” Barber said. “They are constantly having to be put in situations where they are second guessing their own judgment. And I think we saw that in Birmingham recently, where an officer was assaulted with his own weapon and it nearly cost him his life.”
Barber later elaborated on use of force generally, saying as a percentage of calls received, deadly encounters are actually exceedingly rare. Still, he said, there are also cases in which officers should have used deadly force but didn’t, and some have died as a result.
According to an FBI news release dated May 11, 51 law enforcement officers were feloniously killed in the line of duty in 2014, representing an increase of almost 89 percent compared to the 27 officers killed in 2013.
“Usually the officer failed to follow proper protocols and usually the officer that is killed is the ‘Officer Friendly,’ not the ‘Robocop’ types. It’s usually the ones that did little things that they shouldn’t have done,” Barber said. “Unfortunately, given recent events around the country, there is a threat that cops may be shot for simply wearing the uniform.”
‘All it takes is one to mess up’
During his own tenure as a chief of police for the city of Mobile, Sheriff Sam Cochran saw several incidents that ended with officer-involved shootings or use of extreme force. Though he said many of those were justified, he also said police should always examine situations to see if and how they could have been avoided.
“We want to work to have good community relations and build trust, and we think we have that, but sometimes you don’t know until an incident occurs,” Cochran said. “There have been national incidents of officers making terrible mistakes and simply doing wrong, but there’s this groundswell to paint it with a broad brush and say all officers are like that.’ They’re not. Very few are, but they’re all feeling the pressure from it.”
Cochran said training and experience are the keys to preventing mistakes in the field, but the MCSO and other departments can sometimes struggle to keep and retain quality officers because of limited budgets. According to that, Cochran said skilled and proven officers are often sought by other agencies able to provide larger salaries or better benefits.
In 2014, MCSO deputies got their first raise in seven years, but Cochran said it still isn’t enough to make them competitive with other agencies across the state and even some other departments in the county.
“When I was the chief of the MPD, we would lose 40 to 50 officers a year, every year,” Cochran said. “That was the case with the chief before me, the chief after me and the chief today. When you have to hire 50 new officers a year and retrain them, four or five can slip in on you that either can’t deal with the pressure of certain situations or just may be bad at the job.”
Cochran, who has advocated raises for his employees in recent years, said those attrition rates result in hiring new officers that have never done police work before. Ideally, the MCSO hires officers from other departments, but recently Cochran said he’s had to hire officers with no experience and send them directly to training.
The problem, according to Cochran, is there’s no way to see how they’ll perform all facets of the job — interacting with the public and handling high-risk situations — until they’re actually in the field.
“There’s always been bad cops and cops that are just not cut out for the job,” he said. “For the 19 years I’ve been an executive or the head of an agency, I’ve had to get rid of people that are not fit for the job. But sometimes it takes time to get them out, and you only hope you can do that before they do something really, really stupid.”
Cops and the mentally ill
Compounding the problem, Cochran said funding cuts on the state and federal level have caused an increase in situations where officers are dealing with mentally ill patients. He said those situations can be difficult because officers have no way of knowing a patient’s mental health history when they arrive on a call.
In 2014, Alabama Psychiatric Services filed for bankruptcy and was forced to shut down its outpatient operations throughout the state, which included offices in Fairhope, Daphne and Mobile. As a result, an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 patients in Mobile and Baldwin counties were left with few options for psychiatric services other than the facilities operated by AltaPointe Health Systems.
According to audited financial statements, AltaPointe reported $72.9 million in revenue in 2014, but 45 percent of that came from fees charged to the Medicaid and Medicare programs. Medicaid was among the first proposed cuts during the state legislature’s recent failed special session, though a final budget has still not been agreed to.
Another 43 percent of AltaPointe’s funding came from state and local grants and contracts. Recently, Mobile County extended its commitment to AltaPointe for more than decade, but last year the city of Mobile cut $400,000 from its contribution. As the funding decreases, the number of mentally ill patients on the street goes up.
Similarly, Barber said funding the mental health care system is a concern for public safety because law enforcement agencies have far fewer remedies.
“Whether they are being disorderly or there is damaged property or there are threats involved, oftentimes we have to resort to placing them in Metro Jail in order to protect the community,” he said. “That’s the only resource we have.”
Based on his experience, Cochran said, a majority of incidents that result in his officers using their service weapons deal with a subject with some kind of mental illness, whose issues can be compounded by “drugs, alcohol, domestic violence or a fit of rage.”
Cochran said law enforcement in Mobile and across the country is having to evolve in both the technology officers use and the tactics they employ to deal with suspected criminals — including those with mental illnesses.
The MCSO has always employed training for de-escalating situations with mentally ill subjects. According to Cochran, it’s part of the 502 hours of basic training every deputy has to complete, but he said recent events have prompted a renewed emphasis.
“Now, when people are having a mental episode or there’s a drug-induced episodic event, you try to give them time and distance if you can,” Cochran said. “Sometimes they’ll unwind. Other times, we have to put our people between that person and a family member or the public, and you can’t always give time and distance in those situations. Therein lie some of the incidents that can lead to police shootings.”
Jason Johnson contributed to this report.