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Officers must do better by mentally ill

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By MARY JO MELONE, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published November 10, 2002


Last Saturday was the fourth anniversary. Nevertheless, Carol Skipper has not grown accustomed to the facts. Her son is dead.

His name was David Montgomery and he was a paranoid schizophrenic -- a regular to Tampa cops and to the hospitals where he was taken. He would stop taking his medication and spin out of control. When his parents could not manage him, they'd call 911.

That last time, he jabbed a cop in the face with a barbecue fork. The cop shot. The shooting was treated the way almost all cop shootings are. It was ruled justifiable.

Some parents would have withdrawn into anger and bitterness. Not Mrs. Skipper. "It was our desire to find something constructive to come out of David's death," she said last week.

That something was special 40-hour-long courses for Hillsborough-area cops on how to cope with the mentally ill and the suicidal. The classes have been offered since 1999.

But the course is no good if the cops don't put it to use.

They didn't put it to use Tuesday night, when they needed it.

Deputies were called to the Brandon home of Dana Andrews, a man threatening suicide. He was armed with a couple of knives. When he wouldn't put them down, Andrews was effectively granted his wish to die. A deputy shot him.

The incident took less than 20 minutes. "There wasn't any time" to call in one of the deputies who had taken that special course, said the sheriff's spokesman, Lt. Rod Reder.

No time? Maybe so.

But what if the will is lacking?

Some 80 Hillsborough deputies have taken the special training. But nothing and nobody in the department requires that any of these 80 officers be called to these incidents.

The operative word in a department memo is "may be" called.

Clearly, some circumstances are more important.

If officers arrive on a scene and find they need a Spanish-speaking deputy, they get on the radio and ask for one, and one appears.

If male officers have to search a female suspect, they get on the radio and ask for a woman deputy to do the job, and a woman appears.

The department does not go to these lengths for the mentally ill.

Yet they deal with the mentally ill and suicidal regularly. They receive as many as nine calls a day to respond to these kinds of situations, according to department figures.

Dana Andrews' death last week threw Carol Skipper backward in time. "I wondered if they were doing the course," she said. "We need more of it."

She was careful not to criticize the Sheriff's Office. She has to work with them. And she knows that dealing with a mentally ill person who is in crisis can be volatile.

Some Tampa police officers also have taken the special training on the mentally ill. A week before Dana Andrews died, a Tampa cop shot a homeless, mentally disabled man when he threw a putty knife with a metal spike attached at the cop's head.

The man, Luis Rafael Objio, lived. The cop was unhurt.

Carol Skipper did nothing special to mark the anniversary of her son David's death on Saturday. To her, this special training is tribute enough.

"If just one person's life is saved," she said, "that would be honoring him."

-- You can reach Mary Jo Melone at mjmelone@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.

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