PD Editorial: Filling gaps in the county's mental-health net

  • Adrianne DeSantis, mother of Richard DeSantis, holds poster of her son on South Avenue in Santa Rosa Monday evening accompanied by protestors who paused with her in front of the residence where he was killed and his wife and children still live, walking to Courthouse Square for a pm rally. (Press Democrat/ Mark Aronoff)

On April 9, 2007, a Santa Rosa man suffered a mental breakdown, and his family called 911 for help. Minutes later, Richard DeSantis died in his driveway, shot by responding police officers.

DeSantis' death, coming barely a month after sheriff's deputies killed a delusional teenager, helped focus public attention on the gaping holes in Sonoma County's mental health system.

This month, a little more than six years later, DeSantis' family settled a federal lawsuit against the city of Santa Rosa for about $1 million.

It's a sad end to a heartbreaking story.

In the aftermath of the shooting, we cautioned against a rush to judgment and urged citizens and public officials alike to look for ways to minimize the risk of these deadly confrontations.

Because neither side was willing to discuss the DeSantis settlement, it's difficult to say how much of that was accomplished by this litigation.

However, from the beginning, DeSantis' death provided a case study of the risks involved when law enforcement officers are thrust into crises beyond the scope of their experience and training.

DeSantis' wife called for help when he fired a handgun into the ceiling of their home, believing someone was in the attic. When officers arrived, Patricia DeSantis told them her husband was no longer armed. Yet when he charged at them in the driveway, they opened fire, explaining later that they couldn't be certain he didn't have a firearm.

A U.S. District Court jury ruled that police violated DeSantis' civil rights, but their verdict was overturned by the trial judge. And, as Santa Rosa Police Chief Tom Schwedhelm pointed out, the settlement includes no admission of wrongdoing.

No amount of money can bring DeSantis back to his wife, his mother and his 9-year-old daughter. And the officers who fired at DeSantis must live with the burden of taking a life, regardless of any findings of fault.

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