Police are changing their approach to mentally ill people to get them help, avoid tragedy

Kansas City StarJuly 1, 2013 

There on the side of the highway, sleeping, was a man Olathe police were familiar with because of his bizarre behavior.

Police got to know him because he was dropping into strangers’ homes to watch TV or wandering in neighbors’ backyards wearing only underwear.

On this winter day police found the man barefoot, dressed only in shorts and a T-shirt, and when police woke him, he thought it was July.

This time, rather than just arresting him, officers did something different. They got assistance from a mental health specialist who is working with the department as part of a pilot program, and she was able to have him committed involuntarily.

Law enforcement and government officials across the country are working to find better ways to manage people suffering from severe mental episodes so that their encounters with law enforcement result in getting them help, instead of jail or, in some cases, a worse outcome.

An outcome such as what happened in the case of Susan L. Stuckey, a 47-year-old mentally ill woman who clashed with Prairie Village police numerous times over a period of weeks. Finally, after she threatened police, a member of the town’s SWAT team shot her three times, in the neck, back and arm, and she died.

Questions remain three years later about whether the shooting was necessary.

“Susan said she was broken, that she needed help,” said her mother, Beverly Stewart of Overland Park. “I still don’t know why they had to shoot her.”

Prairie Village police officials say they believe they did everything they could to help Stuckey and that the shooting was justified.

Stuckey’s violent death isn’t an anomaly.

Over the last 20 years, encounters with mental illness have become more prominent in police enforcement because of dramatically reduced services and gutted funding, said Gerald Landsberg, a New York University professor who is an expert in forensic mental health. Just in the last four years, state budgets for mental health care have been slashed, $4.5 billion nationally.

“Police have become the mental health crisis providers throughout the United States, and most are not trained,” Landsberg said. “Because they are not trained, they, too, often overreact. The results sometimes are horrendous.”

It’s called old-style policing, in which police subdue someone, usually with force. Laws say if a person threatens an officer with any kind of weapon, police can shoot to kill.

A study published last year found that at least half of the estimated 375 to 500 people shot and killed by police each year in the United States have mental health problems.

A Seattle officer fatally shot a mentally ill alcoholic as the man carved a piece of wood with a pocket knife while crossing the street. In May, police in New Jersey responding to a report of a man threatening to cut himself with glass shot him to death after he threatened them with a knife.

Some Kansas City area police are now getting training through the crisis intervention training (CIT) program, which educates and prepares officers who come in contact with mentally ill people.

Establishing mental health courts like one in the Kansas City Municipal Court are being discussed, and Olathe is the first police department in Johnson County to have a mental health specialist working every day with officers to identify and deal with sick people in Johnson County.

Kimberly Rowlands has dealt with hundreds of mentally ill people since taking the position of co-responder with the Olathe department two years ago.

“Many of these people are paranoid, and they think everyone is out to get them,” she said.

A tragic end

As a child, Stuckey was inquisitive and imaginative. She collected not Barbie dolls but Barbra Streisand records, and when she was 8, she sang solo, “People,” to the delight of the grade school audience.

When she got older, she was beautiful and amazingly witty, often imitating famous people to a T, such as Cher and Marilyn Monroe.

“She could give a look, a Jack Benny look, and people would crack up,” Stewart said.

Stuckey cared deeply for animals, and the family cat lived to be 23 years old in part because she gave it prescribed injections, her mother said. Stuckey also was a gifted baseball player, and her stepdad gave her a bat that she cherished to her death.

She shared a locker with Elizabeth Alex in middle school when both were “outcasts,” but both grew out of that to become popular students at Shawnee Mission West, said Alex, a former KSHB anchorwoman.

But Stuckey’s childhood was disturbed.

While still a young teen, she was sexually abused by an adult acquaintance, her mother said, and by a psychologist when she sought therapy. The psychologist later lost his license because of allegations of sexual impropriety with a different patient, records show.

After graduating from the University of Kansas she worked in sales, but by her late 20s, her battle with depression became pronounced. Her work was sporadic, and eventually she received Social Security disability payments. She often self-medicated with vodka.

Police records detail her descent.

Kenilworth Apartments managers and police knew Stuckey was harassing and threatening neighbors. She was caught window peeping in a man’s apartment and left hateful notes on other residents’ doors.

On March 7, 2010, just three weeks before her death, she was spiraling out of control. A neighbor who was bullied by Stuckey was keeping a journal that she later shared with police. In one passage she wrote: “Susan frightens me … I feel at anytime she could flip out. I also feel she is watching me.”

A couple of days later, Stuckey had a cooking accident, causing smoke damage. The managers agreed to move Stuckey into the complex’s corporate suite for a couple of days while her apartment was cleaned.

Deep paranoia set in.

The move seemed to throw her out of kilter, said Joy Urich, the manager, whom Stuckey liked and would confide in.

“We weren’t going to renew her lease after that year,” Urich said in an interview. “I tried to help her, but I wasn’t a specialist. Even I got frustrated because it was like beating a dead horse.”

From March 18 until March 31, police records show officers and apartment officials received complaints almost every day either from Stuckey or from other residents upset with her behavior.

On March 29, two Johnson County Mental Health employees knocked on her door, but Stuckey refused to allow them in and followed them from the building, yelling. The employees called police.

The next day neighbors called police because she was screaming and had thrown trash out her door. She warned an officer that she had a bat (the one given to her by her stepfather when she was a child) and would knock off his head if he tried to come in.

Stuckey knocked out the screen to her window and began banging on the outside wall with the bat and yelling at officers to stay away. She screamed repeatedly that the only way they could get her to come out was for them to come in and shoot her. The officers left.

Police records show her last day began about 7 a.m. with a phone call to the Overland Park police, telling them that the Prairie Village police would have to kill her before they took her in.

Prairie Village police responded, but she warned officers if they tried to come in, she would hit them with the bat and struck the door and walls with it. At the same time she was barricading the front door, and an officer said she sounded like she was hearing voices.

Prairie Village’s SWAT team was called in. The team planned to use a battering ram to knock down the door. And if they couldn’t get into the apartment, a second team would come in through the balcony.

During the operation, police called Johnson County Mental Health Center and informed them they planned to remove Stuckey from her apartment. A staff member offered to send a counselor to Stuckey’s apartment but was told by an officer that it was not necessary at that point.

At 8:10 a.m., Stuckey left voicemails on Alex’s phone: “The Prairie Village police are at my door, and I’m going to die, I’m sure, but I’m going to knock some heads off before I do.”

For two hours Officer Adam Taylor talked to Stuckey through the door to no avail. She told Taylor she wanted him to kill her. Taylor promised police were not going to kill her.

“That’s not an option,” he said. “We are here to help you, Susan.”

He also promised to call her mother, but she was never contacted.

Police officials said they thought Stuckey might set the apartment on fire. They gave her two minutes to come out or they would come in.

When she ignored them, the first SWAT team used a battering ram to break down the door that was at the top of a stairway. The door fell on top of the barricade. But police decided against sending in the second team through the balcony doors.

Instead, Sgt. Byron Roberson climbed over the door and advanced alone a few feet to the threshold of the living room. He managed to take away the baseball bat from Stuckey. Then she came at him with a broom handle, but he got that away from her, too.

Roberson used a Taser twice, but it never connected with her skin. She then picked up a knife while standing several feet from Roberson. He yelled at her not to pick it up.

Roberson told officials she threw it. The knife bounced off his body suit or the wall. Roberson fired his gun three times.

Stuckey stumbled to the couch, fell down and died.

Legal battle

Afterward, Stuckey’s mother, Stewart, fought two years to get the records to learn the chain of events that led to her daughter’s shooting and now has filed a lawsuit against police, claiming use of force and illegal entry.

An expert witness in Stewart’s case, Vincent Faggiano, retired veteran police commander, trainer, author and litigation consultant, said Stuckey’s death could have been avoided.

Faggiano said in a report for the plaintiff that the department violated some of its own rules and national standards:

• Police failure to use less lethal means to resolve the situation, such as tear gas, violates department policy.

• Roberson’s entry into the apartment alone “defied all accepted police practices.” When the first team could not get into the apartment, the second team should have been deployed.

• Police failed to use a trained negotiator or Johnson County Mental Health Center resources, as the International Association of Chiefs of Police recommends.

• The two-minute ultimatum, which only escalated the situation, resulted in the premature decision to enter the apartment.

The department’s expert witness Steve Ijames said in a report that Prairie Village police did what they could to try to help Stuckey and her shooting was justified.

Ijames, a retired police commander, special operations instructor and police litigation consultant, said state law permits police to use deadly force if they fear bodily harm to themselves or others. Stuckey’s attempts to strike Roberson with the baseball bat and broom handle “would cause a reasonable officer to believe that such force was capable of causing death or serious physical injury. ”

Police also were justified in their ultimatum and for sending Roberson in alone because they had concerns that Stuckey might start a fire.

Prairie Village police declined to discuss any aspect of the case because of the lawsuit, although the Johnson County district attorney has called the shooting justified.

In an interview, Prairie Village Police Chief Wes Jordan said the department embraces the use of mental health crisis intervention and has an expert officer on staff.

No matter how the Stuckey case is resolved, policing is changing here and following trends across the country in regards to the mentally ill.

Police have to learn to deal differently with mentally ill people, according to Bruce A. Rodgers, a criminal justice expert.

Rodgers listed suggestions for police who find themselves in difficult situations. They include:

• Move slowly and take your time. That’s a change because police training teaches the importance of quick decisions.

• Solicit help from friends, relatives and anyone who knows the person.

• Do not rely on your weapon to scare the person because “the threat of a gun is quite meaningless to people who are acutely disturbed. A weapon should be used only in the very rare situation when it is necessary to save a life.”

Alex is still haunted by Stuckey’s death. The newswoman was in Romania to help orphaned children and incommunicado when Stuckey was killed. She had talked to Stuckey before leaving, and Stuckey was upset with her because she wanted Alex to do a news story about her problems over the cooking fire.

She learned Stuckey died when Alex’s plane landed in Washington, D.C., and she listened to messages Stuckey left the morning she died.

“I just wish so badly I had been here and if possible could have done something that might have prevented this,” she said. “I don’t know if (police) were right or not. But I would like to know. I would sure like to have nobody else have that happen to them.”

Ledger-Enquirer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service