A midnight stroll, a grab and a push: When policing the mentally ill turns deadly


Highlights

More than 30 people with mental illness have died after being restrained by Texas police since 2005.

Tom Klessig, 23, died after being pinned down by University Park police.

Police say mental health calls are challenging because they are fast-moving and unpredictable.

Sometime around midnight on Sept. 23, 2014, Tom Klessig left his stately home in the heart of the affluent Dallas suburb of University Park to go on one of his late-night walks around the neighborhood.

Klessig, a 23-year-old former wrestling champion, was back in his childhood home, living with his parents after years of struggle with schizoaffective disorder, which left him hearing voices and unable to hold a job. His doctors had recently prescribed a medication that seemed to calm him but also made him lethargic. His weight had swelled to almost 300 pounds from his wrestling weight of 160.

University Park police were familiar with Klessig and his mental health history after a number of run-ins in recent years. Just two weeks earlier, he had crashed his car. His father, Richard Klessig, a software developer, came upon the scene to find an officer screaming at his son to get his insurance.

SPECIAL REPORT: A Question of Restraint

“I said, ‘He won’t respond to that. You have to be polite.’ If you were polite to him, he would be polite back. If you were rough with him, he’d be rough back,” Richard Klessig said.

On several previous instances officers had taken him to a psychiatric hospital rather than jail.

On Sept. 23, police had been called once again. A private security company had reported Klessig acting suspiciously during his late walk by repeatedly peering into a neighbor’s yard on Lovers Lane.

When police arrived, they ordered Klessig to sit on the curb. “Leave me alone,” he responded, according to a Texas Ranger investigative report. As he tried to walk away, an officer “put a hand on Klessig’s upper arm.”

Klessig responded with a push and took off running. A half-hour later, he would be dead from “mechanical compression” — a dashcam video shows an officer with his knees on his back, pinning him face-down to the ground his wrists and ankles in shackles, just four blocks from his house.

Bland Act calls for training

Klessig is one of at least 33 people with histories of mental illness who died after being restrained by police in Texas over the past decade, according to a first-of-its-kind investigation by the American-Statesman of in-custody deaths. Six of those people wielded weapons; the rest were unarmed, records with the Texas Attorney General indicate.

Because the reports that law enforcement agencies must file on in-custody deaths do not track information about the decedent’s mental health, the numbers are likely an undercount of those with a psychiatric disorder who die in police custody. Nationally, experts believe at least 25 percent of victims of fatal encounters with police had an untreated severe mental illness.

Police encounters with people with untreated mental illness can be among the most difficult challenges officers face. Many of the people in the cases analyzed by the Statesman were incoherent, aggressive, violent or acting erratically. Some incidents appear to have spun out of control even when the officers had undergone specialized mental health training.

Yet some of the deaths in police custody also raise serious questions about the way police deal with people struggling with mental illness. In several instances, police appear to have acted contrary to what experts advise — a slower, less confrontational approach to mentally ill people that can prevent violent encounters and death.

The unnecessary confrontations can be expensive as well as tragic. Joel Don Casey, who had schizophrenia, was beaten and shocked with a Taser gun 18 times by Harris County deputy constables, all while Casey yelled, “I’m your friend. Don’t kill me. I’m your friend.” A jury awarded his family $3 million.

Michael Patrick Jacobs, Jr., who also had a history of mental illness, died after being shocked with a Taser by Fort Worth police officers continuously for 49 seconds on the front yard of his parents’ home. The city settled a lawsuit for $2 million.

READ Hurting to death: Police shooting ends man’s battle with mental illness

The Texas Legislature is considering a bill that would, among other things, increase the amount of de-escalation training on how to interact with someone with mental illness from 16 hours to 40 hours per year and encourage counties across the state to divert suspects to mental health facilities rather than take them to jail.

Even for officers with specialized training, mental health calls present challenges. The University Park officers who responded the night Klessig died had received mental health training and at least one was familiar with Klessig’s mental health history, according to the Texas Ranger report.

State Rep. Garnet Coleman, the Houston Democrat who filed the Sandra Bland Act — named for a mentally ill Illinois woman pulled over in Waller County for a minor infraction and later found dead in her jail cell from an apparent suicide — said the additional training would help officers distinguish between “a person who is in crisis and one who is being aggressive … and resolve the situation in a peaceful manner.”

Escalating vs. de-escalating

Each year, 2 million jail bookings across the country involve a person with mental illness. A person with an untreated mental illness is 16 times more likely to be killed by police than a person without one, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center, a national organization that advocates for people with psychiatric disorders.

Experts say law enforcement often is unprepared.

“They have imperfect information,” said John Snook, executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center“These are the calls that scare them because they’re so unpredictable.”

Traditionally, law enforcement officers have been trained to command a scene through orders, tone of voice and body language. But people with a mental illness often don’t respond to that, said Sgt. Ernest Stevens with the San Antonio Police Department, which teaches its officers how to deal with people with mental illness.

Those with schizophrenia, for example, may be experiencing visual or audio hallucinations. If they’re hearing voices, they may not be able to properly respond to police officers’ questions, he said.

Officers learn the basic foundation of communication, de-escalation, active listening and building rapport with people in crisis, he said. The officers are taught to speak in a more conversational tone and to avoid beginning the interaction with a commanding voice. They are advised to ask open-ended questions — “Can you tell me about that?” or “Why are you frustrated?” — and to identify people’s emotions (“You seem sad”) to form a connection.

“It’s a different approach,” Stevens said. “We’re trying to keep people out of jail, not put them there.”

A team approach

The idea of specifically training officers to handle people with mental illness has deep roots in Memphis.

In 1988 — after fatally shooting a man with a history of mental illness — the Tennessee police department joined with mental health and academic experts to create the first Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training. The 40-hour program is designed to teach officers the complexities of helping people with mental illness who are in the middle of a psychiatric crisis.

About 3,000 of the nation’s roughly 18,000 law enforcement agencies have had some or all of their officers go through CIT training, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The Austin Police Department and Travis County Sheriff’s Office are among the Central Texas agencies with dedicated CIT units.

There is no comprehensive list of agencies with the training, said Scott Soland, president of the Texas CIT Association. Soland, a lieutenant with the Fort Bend County sheriff’s office, says he has trained about 900 officers in the Houston area.

Each department works out the details of their training, but the core elements are consistent around the country. Officers learn to recognize when someone is having a psychiatric crisis. They hear from people with mental illness and their families. They learn the characteristics of different conditions and how that might affect the way people interact with the police.

CIT officers work in special units devoted to answering mental health calls. The biggest thing the officers learn is empathy, Stevens said.When they meet people with mental illness and their families, they begin to see people in crisis as human beings who need help, he said.

Two decades ago, Pat Deegan — a national researcher, psychologist and disability rights advocate — created a voice simulation to show people what it’s like to hear voices in your head. Users listen on headphones to a recording of voices saying both cruel and comforting things, then try to conduct a series of tasks like writing or remembering specific words.

Officers usually find the voices so distracting and upsetting that they struggle to complete the tasks, Deegan said. Afterward, she said, they are physically and mentally drained.

“They immediately go for the coffee and donuts,” Deegan said. “They want the sugar and caffeine because they’re depleted. I think it’s a real eye-opener.”

CIT units collaborate with other community resources to help the person both on-site and after the emergency has passed. Austin Police Department’s CIT unit works with the local mental health authority’s mobile crisis outreach team, which is comprised of nurses, licensed clinicians and other psychiatric health professionals.

Mental health experts are far better equipped than law enforcement to help people in crisis, said Lt. Brian Jones with the Austin Police Department. The mobile outreach team responds to scenes with police officers and provides psychiatric assessments, crisis intervention care, brief follow-up with patients and other services.

In 2016, the Austin Police Department responded to 11,828 mental health-related calls, Jones said. But even when departments do have specialized training, things can go wrong.

In February 2016, 17-year-old David Joseph — who was running naked in a Northeast Austin neighborhood — was shot and killed as he charged toward a police officer. The city ultimately settled a lawsuit with the teen’s family for $3.5 million.

In October 2016, 26-year-old Micah Jester repeatedly yelled for officers to kill her at her South Austin apartment and was fatally shot by officers who said she pointed a BB gun that closely resembled a handgun at them.

Such situations are difficult to handle because they are fast moving and unpredictable, Jones said.

“We’re not the experts on mental health,” he said. “We’re cops. I didn’t go to school to be a doctor. But the thing is, the police are always the ones that are called.”

‘Suffocated to death’

Tom Klessig was a toddler when his parents moved to University Park, a wealthy neighborhood just north of downtown Dallas with highly rated schools and little crime.

As a high school sophomore, he won a critical match that propelled the Highland Park High School wrestling team to the state championship. As a senior, he placed fourth statewide.

But that same year, his mental health problems began to emerge, complicated by his use of recreational drugs — particularly ecstasy, his parents said. After graduation, he underwent a series of psychiatric hospitalizations and struggled to hold a job.

According to a Texas Ranger investigation of his in-custody death, the University Park incident began when Klessig, who was 5 feet 8 inches, walked up to a large, gated home with on Lovers Lane and looked into the front yard. During the summer, he liked to take walks through his tree-lined neighborhood late at night when it was cooler, his parents said. They believe he was attracted to the handsome landscaping and striking lighting of the well-known house.

Private security personnel, who captured Klessig’s actions on surveillance camera, called the police. Officers came upon Klessig walking nearby and attempted to question him. When he resisted, the encounter quickly turned physical.

Klessig, like many people with mental illness, was particularly sensitive to physical confrontation: an unwanted touch, even a minor one, could trigger him, his father said. As Klessig pulled free, he “violently shoved” another officer to the ground and ran, the Ranger report said.

Officers gave chase, catching up to him on his own street, blocks from his house. Video of the incident shows a lengthy struggle to tackle and subdue Klessig. It took five officers, who used pepper spray and baton strikes, about 15 minutes to get three pairs of handcuffs and leg irons on him. One officer told investigators Klessig had “He-Man” strength.

Even after Klessig was cuffed, officers continued to physically restrain him. Officers said he “continued to try to get up or roll over” and one kneeled on his shoulder and back. On the video, an officer appears to be forcefully pushing his head down when Klessig attempts to lift it.

“They were mad because he wouldn’t cooperate,” Annie Klessig said. “Where could he go? Basically he couldn’t breathe. He was suffocated to death.”

Paramedics who were called to decontaminate his eyes and take him for a psychological evaluation found he had no pulse. The Dallas County Medical Examiner ruled that Klessig “died from acute physiologic stress and mechanical compression during police restraint in combination with obesity. It is my further opinion that his (mental health condition) was contributory.” A drug and alcohol screen came back negative.

The death was ruled a homicide.

Two-year delay for records

Richard and Annie Klessig said they didn’t see video of their son’s death until two years later, after a Dallas County grand jury cleared the five officers who took part in the arrest.

Lacking information about what happened to their son, they initially did not pursue legal action. “We certainly feel betrayed by law enforcement,” Richard Klessig said.

“We’re going to be feeling this pain in our hearts for the rest of our lives,” Annie added. Our daughter feels like an only child.

Klessig’s death has led to a number of reforms at the University Park Police Department, according to Chief Greg Spradlin, who would not discuss the specifics of the incident.

Spradlin said that since the incident, the department requires all officers to receive additional training for mental health situations. So far, 24 of 39 officers have completed the training and been certified as Mental Health Peace Officers by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement. In-house mental health training now occurs annually.

Last year, Spradlin said, he amended the department’s use of force policy to make de-escalation a requirement and a “formal theme” in the department’s overall training notification. And while the department doesn’t have a Crisis Intervention Team, he said 14 officers have received crisis intervention training and he is working with the city manager to establish such a team.

“At least they’re heading in the right direction,” Richard Klessig said. “But it doesn’t change what happened to Tom.”



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