MENTAL HEALTH

Call for help in Miami spirals out of control

 
 
Chanel Lightfoot, left, was arrested and charged with obstructing justice when she went to help her brother Jawaan Wilcox.
Chanel Lightfoot, left, was arrested and charged with obstructing justice when she went to help her brother Jawaan Wilcox.
CHARLES RABIN / MIAMI HERALD STAFF

crabin@MiamiHerald.com

Jawaan Wilcox hears voices others don’t. Sometimes they tell him to do bad things. He is schizophrenic.

Medication usually keeps his rage under control. Two weeks ago, despite pleas from his mother, Wilcox wouldn’t take his meds. He told his mom they made him feel tired and sluggish. She called police for help.

The next few hours spiraled out of control.

When it was over, Wilcox, 21, was in the hospital. He had a lump on his head after smashing into the ground. His brother and two sisters were arrested after a wild melee with about two dozen police officers outside the family’s Little Haiti home. His mother was left frustrated in her belief that the mayhem could easily have been avoided.

Twyla Richardson, Wilcox’s mom, asked that Miami police send officers trained in crisis intervention — officers who have been to her home before and have defused potentially explosive situations involving her son. She blames police for allowing the situation at her home to escalate.

“It was as if it was entertainment for the police. They found it to be amusing,” Twyla Richardson said. “This is happening too much in this community. They took my kids in. This is crazy.”

Miami police have started an Internal Affairs investigation into what happened that day, Feb. 3. Still, they caution that a scene can turn ugly when a loved one is taken into custody, even if fully trained officers respond to a call.

“We will review this for several reasons, to determine both if something could have been done better for future cases and to see if the officers acted properly or not,” Miami Police Maj. Delrish Moss said. “What is clear right now is this was not a routine chain of events.”

Arrest affidavits for Richardson’s three children lay blame on family members who cursed at officers, and whose attempts to free their brother from custody attracted a large crowd that endangered police.

“While officers were trying to place the violent patient in custody, the patient’s family began obstructing the officers by fighting with them. Additional units were dispatched,” an officer wrote in a police report on Feb. 3.

Whatever the truth, this was the result: Wilcox spent more than a week at Jackson Memorial Hospital’s crisis center, and his brother Clinton Coleman, 19, and sisters Chanel Lightfoot, 23, and Shantell Garland, 22, were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. It’s the girls’ first criminal charge.

“They’ve done everything they can to avoid a criminal record,” Richardson said.

Richardson, 39, remains haunted with the thought the family tragedy could have been avoided had members of the police department’s Crisis Intervention Team responded to her call for help, as she said she requested, and as they have several times before.

“I asked dispatch to send CIT several times. They sent regulars. They told me they were trained to deal with this,” she said.

Police said one officer at the scene had training, but they couldn’t say whether he was one of the initial responders who called for help.

The Wilcox case isn’t unusual. But the handling of Wilcox and the arrest of his brothers and sisters offer a glimpse into the difficult world of policing the menatally ill.

Police agencies often lack needed training in a county with the largest percentage of people with serious mental illnesses.

Wilcox was diagnosed with schizophrenia five years ago and has been in and out of Jackson since. Florida Department of Law Enforcement records show he has been arrested twice — once in November 2009, though the charge isn’t listed — and again in August 2011, for trespassing.

Miami police have responded to the family’s home more than two dozen times the past two years. Thirteen of those visits were for disturbances, including crisis intervention for Wilcox. The only visit by police that resulted in an arrest, according to the records, was on Feb. 3.

A decade ago, to help police deal with the mentally ill, the court-created Criminal Mental Health Project established crisis intervention teams (CITs) of police officers to help deal with the mentally ill and keep cops and subjects safer. Between 90 and 100 sworn Miami police officers, or about 10 percent of the force, are CIT trained. They work citywide on various shifts.

Classes are voluntary and offered up to 12 times a year. The instruction is led by the county’s CIT program coordinator, Habsi Kaba, who has extensive experience in psychosocial rehabilitation, and who graduated from St. Thomas University with a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy.

Kaba and and other mental health professionals, along with families of the mentally ill, train the officers in dealing with substance abuse, teach them about medications, and most important, instruct them on de-escalation techniques.

“It helps officers to develop compassion,” Kaba said. “At first officers are like, ‘What is this?’ They don’t understand this will keep them safer.”

Kaba said hard statistics aren’t available to show the CIT’s effectiveness. She said injuries to officers and subjects are down nationwide, as are arrests of the mentally ill.

“It’s vital to the safety of officers and the community,” Kaba said.

Police say they have no incident report of the altercation with Richardson’s family because Wilcox wasn’t arrested. He was taken into custody under the Baker Act, which allows officers and family members to admit a person for mental treatment without that person’s permission.

Family members say the two officers arrived first and were alone for 15 to 20 minutes before they determined they needed help. Richardson estimated 30 officers descended on her home. Miami Police Sgt. Freddie Cruz declined to say how many officers showed up, saying the situation was under investigation.

According to family members, witnesses and arrest affidavits, police arrived at the home sometime mid-morning on Feb. 3. The situation went bad almost from the start.

Richardson said officers became “agitated” because her son resisted being handcuffed and placed in a patrol car. Eventually they handcuffed Wilcox, hands behind his back. But when officers tried to put him in the patrol car, he again resisted, placing a foot against the car and pushing back.

When Wilcox fell to the ground in front of the house and hit his head, it was too much for his brother, Clinton Coleman.

Coleman said as he approached the patrol car, an officer drew his weapon and told him to get back. Richardson said she went over and instructed her son to keep his hands in the air and show officers he had no weapon.

Police have a different version. The arrest report says an officer ordered Coleman to get back several times, but the teen refused and began swearing, which drew a crowd. He was arrested and charged with obstruction and disorderly conduct.

FDLE records show Coleman was arrested three times as a juvenile, twice for aggravated battery in April 2007 and August 2008, and for battery on a police officer and firefighter in October 2008.

Chanel Lightfoot said she got involved after Coleman’s arrest, telling police she “saw what y’all did,” she said. She said when she went to see her brothers and pushed a patrol car door shut, a female officer “got in her face,” handcuffed her, and pushed her face into the ground.

Police accounts again differ. The report says Lightfoot tried to open the patrol car door to let her brother out, yelling at the officers, “You can’t tell me what to do,” before she was handcuffed, arrested and charged with obstruction of justice and disorderly conduct.

Shantell Garland said that’s when she went over and saw her sister crying. The next thing she knew, “they grabbed my arm.” She, too, was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct.

Police reports say they repeatedly told Garland to “stop yelling and calm down” as a crowd formed. When she refused, she was arrested.

Later that day, Richardson called police again, this time to inform them that after she left to retrieve her children from jail, burglars broke into her unoccupied home and stole electronics.

Wilcox says he clearly remembers the events of Feb. 3, and that police threw him to the ground.

“I tried to run away,” he said.

On Tuesday, Wilcox returned home from the hospital, the knot in his head finally gone. He was greeted by his brother and sisters, who are still facing criminal charges their mother says could have been avoided.

“Obviously, this incident will require a thorough investigation,” said Moss, the Miami police major. “It appears that at least one CIT training officer was on the scene. But that doesn’t mean that there are not variables that arise where some degree of force to control the situation will not have to occur.”

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