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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.

After DeSantis was shot, his wife and others asked why police didn?t use Tasers or other non-lethal means to try to stop his charge before four officers opened fire with handguns and a rifle. One officer did first use a Sage Low Lethal Launcher, firing a plastic projectile, but it didn?t stop the unarmed DeSantis, and firearms were then used.

Faced with criticism of the shootings, elected officials and police have been meeting with advocacy groups and civil rights activists to discuss how mental health calls are handled, how police shootings are investigated and whether changes are needed.

Another meeting is scheduled for June 4.

Sheriff Bill Cogbill and Santa Rosa Police Chief Ed Flint have characterized much of the criticism as second-guessing of officers who face unpredictable dangers when they confront the mentally ill.

Both the Chass and DeSantis shootings remain under investigation and eventually will be reviewed by the district attorney and the grand jury.

Meanwhile, some rank and file members of the National Alliance on Mental Illness are pointing at another case ? also involving Misita ? as evidence that law enforcement officers are too quick to use force when confronted with the mentally ill.

The case (which Hedgpeth said she couldn?t comment on) played out last year at the criminal trial of a mentally ill man charged with assaulting Misita. To evaluate the questions raised, The Press Democrat reviewed more than 400 pages of transcripts from the trial, which ended with a hung jury.

Through the Sheriff?s Department, Misita declined an interview request.

Among the witnesses was a law enforcement expert hired by the defense who said Misita acted too hastily.

Misita, a 25-year veteran who was given the Sheriff?s Department?s highest honor for disarming a woman in 1999, was sent in June 2005 to the home of Frank McConnel, a paranoid schizophrenic who had been released from a mental hospital three days earlier.

It was the sort of call that sheriff?s deputies handled 400 times last year, according to the department.

As in the Chass case, McConnel?s family was concerned about his mental condition and called for help. McConnel?s mother believed he needed his medication changed and wanted him taken back to the hospital for evaluation.

Misita testified that because the situation was ?potentially violent,? he almost immediately tried to handcuff McConnel, who was sitting in the front yard when he arrived. He said McConnel refused orders to keep his hands out of his pockets and he used pepper spray when McConnel backed off.

?It had no effect on him,? Misita testified.

Saying he was ?scared? and wondered ?what this guy was under,? Misita, joined by U.S. Coast Guard police officer Louis Stoerzinger, who was there as a backup, tried to physically subdue McConnel.

Before they succeeded, McConnel broke Misita?s nose and thumb. McConnel suffered bruises and six cuts ?on his nose, forehead, eyebrow and scalp ? ranging from a third of an inch to 3?-inches long.

McConnel was arrested after the June 22, 2005 incident. He spent the next year in jail and was charged with six felonies, including two counts of assault on a police officer.

When the case went to trial, the defense focused on Misita?s tactics and called as an expert witness Jack Smith, a former El Cajon police chief, Los Angeles Police Department internal affairs investigator and San Diego County assistant sheriff.

Smith, who was recognized by the court as an expert in the use of force and police tactics regarding mentally ill subjects, said Misita appeared to rush to subdue McConnel without properly assessing the situation.

Situations involving mentally disturbed people can be ?extremely dangerous for both the police and the person being approached,? Smith said.

?The first officers who arrive on the scene, it?s their job to form a plan,? Smith said. ?That?s why . . . it?s important that they slow down; that they stop, slow down, unless there is something tragic happening then they have to act.?

Smith?s testimony included a caveat that intervention is justified in some cases. Officers may need to react immediately when ?something tragic is happening,? he said.

In other testimony, Misita said that he saw no one else at the scene when he arrived. He also said that during the fight that ensued after he used pepper spray, McConnel flipped him over his head, tried to grab Stoerzinger?s gun and missed his head with several ?karate-style kicks.?

Stoerzinger, in his testimony, also said McConnel tried to grab his gun as they fought on the ground. But on other points, his account differed from Misita?s.

Stoerzinger said that McConnel?s mother was visible on the porch behind McConnel when he and Misita arrived. He also said that McConnel did not flip Misita, and that McConnel tried once to kick Misita and fell on the ground.

Ultimately, the jury was not convinced that McConnel?s conduct was criminal. The eight-day trial ended without verdicts ? the 12 jurors leaned toward acquittals on all counts ? and prosecutors settled the case by allowing McConnel to plead to a single misdemeanor count of resisting arrest and be released from custody.

He and his family moved out of state after the trial and he has since died of an aneurysm.

Sheriff?s Capt. Dave Edmonds, the department spokesman, said it?s inappropriate to draw any parallels between the McConnel and Chass cases.

?Any effort to take this incident two years ago, in which deputy Misita was assaulted, and float a conclusion that he mishandled the event is unfair,? Edmonds said. ?I also think it?s unfair to use any type of portrayal like that to attempt to discolor his performance during the Chass event.?

When Misita arrived at the Chass home, authorities said, Chass had a Leatherman-style knife with a 2?-blade and had been threatening to kill his brother.

?The concern for weapons always changes the situation entirely,? Edmonds said. ?That?s the essential point.?

Misita fought with Chass for several minutes and suffered blunt force trauma from kicks to the head. He was joined by Deputy Jim Ryan, who also was hurt.

Ryan shot Chass several times, and the youth continued to fight until Misita shot him once, according to an account by the Sheriff?s Department. Chass was shot eight times in all, according to the Santa Rosa Police Department, which is investigating the incident.

Neither deputy has spoken publicly about the incident. Nor have the four Santa Rosa officers ? Sgts. Rich Celli and Jerry Soares and Officers Patricia Mann and Travis Menke ? involved in the DeSantis shooting.

Misita, however, had a revealing moment in his 2006 trial testimony when he suggested he was intimately aware of the pressures parents of mentally disabled people face, and of the frustrations of trying to get proper care for the mentally ill.

?I have a mentally handicapped daughter, so I know her feeling,? he said, a reference to McConnel?s mother. ?I know what it?s like dealing with mental health services in this county.?

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com.

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