Fatal shootings of mentally ill called indication that better training needed for officers

On March 12, two Sonoma County sheriff?s deputies shot and killed a teenager who was armed with a knife and had been holding his younger brother hostage inside the family van.

Less than a month later, four Santa Rosa police officers shot and killed a 30-year-old man who fired a gun inside his house and charged at officers outside.

Both of those killed were mentally disturbed.

Jeremiah Chass, the Sebastopol 16-year-old, reacted violently when his parents tried to take him for psychiatric help.

Richard DeSantis, the Santa Rosa man, had stopped taking his medicine for bipolar disorder and thought someone was in his attic.

In each case, police said they made split-second decisions to open fire to protect themselves and others. Police in Sonoma County respond to more than 1,000 mental health calls a year.

But advocacy groups say the Chass and DeSantis shootings make a case that officers need more training and resources to defuse such crisis situations.

?I think people are thinking twice about calling 911, and about what are they going to do if their loved one does go out of control,? said Jennifer Hedgpeth, president of the Sonoma County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Such training has proven to reduce the possibility of harm to officers and mentally ill subjects, she said, and needs to be a priority, ?otherwise there is a greater likelihood of irresponsible action on the part of the officers involved in an incident.?

Her group, echoing Chass? parents, questioned whether the March 12 shooting could have been avoided if Deputy John Misita didn?t immediately turn to pepper spray and then physical force in an effort to disarm the teenager. A second deputy was the first to shoot Chass when the fight got out of hand.

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