Editorials

A death in Miami Gardens

GRIEVING: Catherine Daniels is comforted by her nephew Tyrone Nelson and her cousin Elaine Ingraham at a memorial for her son Lavall Hall in Miami Gardens.
GRIEVING: Catherine Daniels is comforted by her nephew Tyrone Nelson and her cousin Elaine Ingraham at a memorial for her son Lavall Hall in Miami Gardens. Miami Herald Staff

Second-guessing is the easy part, obviously — especially when it comes to police shootings that end in a fatality. The death of Lavall Hall, shot by Miami Gardens police after, according to the police chief, he hit officers with a broomstick and continued to confront them and ignore commands even after being zapped with a Taser, needs answers.

Mr. Hall’s family, rightly is demanding them, and the broader community, too, must know what happened — especially because, according to Miami-Dade County Judge Steven Leifman, police officers in every department in the county have received training to defuse potentially violent confrontations with residents who are mentally ill.

▪ Why did the officers get so close to Mr. Hall? Officers who go through court-sponsored crisis-intervention training are taught not to get close to a mentally ill person having an episode. Police Chief Stephen Johnson said that the responding officers were trained and that, “They did the best they could.”

▪ Did officers call the Mobile Crisis Unit? Funded by the state, these units provide a psychiatrist who might help defuse such situations.

▪ Did the officers know that they were dealing with a mentally ill man? Mr. Hall’s mother, Catherine Daniels, says that family members told police beforehand that her son was bipolar, schizophrenic and taking medication.

Mr. Hall, 25, everyone seems to agree, was having an psychotic episode, one frightening enough for his mother to lock herself inside their house and call police at 5 a.m. Sunday. Things deteriorated from there, with Mr. Hall, though Tased, the chief says, injuring officers with the broomstick before being shot twice, once in the arm, and then, fatally, in the chest.

The irony of this tragic case is that such deadly shootings by police have become rare. “This is the first in a long, long, long, long, long time,” Judge Leifman told the Editorial Board.

Why? Because of the judge’s decades-long commitment to ensuring that mentally ill residents get appropriate treatment; because of police departments’ greater understanding of how mental illness manifests itself and of how to handle incidents so that they end peacefully; and because of the progressive hard work of organizations such as the Miami affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

According to Judge Leifman, “In Miami and Miami-Dade County in 2013, there were 10,626 mental-illness calls — but there were only nine arrests.” That’s extraordinary.

But it is a rare success that stands out amid the huge gaps in the care that mentally ill residents receive in greater Miami, and across the state. Florida is 50th — dead last — in mental-health funding. “We spend $39 per person,” Susan Racher, a NAMI board member. “The national average is $130.”

Then this: Only 15 percent of mentally ill residents in the state who are involuntarily committed — under Florida’s Baker Act — are released with any case management and follow-up care. According to his mother, Mr. Hall had been placed in a local hospital’s mental ward the week before his death — with police providing help to get him there. He, apparently, was released when he was no longer deemed a danger to himself or others to a family incapable of handling his episodes. It happens all the time, clearly 85 percent of the time.

And why it happened in the case of Mr. Hall awaits definitive answers.

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