Loretta Cerbelli lost her son Kevin six years ago when the
delusional 30-year-old walked into a police station in New York's
borough of Queens and stabbed an officer without provocation. Less
than two minutes later, other officers shot him to death.
Sue Nickerson lost her son three years ago. A police officer in
Centreville, Md., Michael Nickerson answered a call about a noise
disturbance in a trailer park and was shot and killed by a mentally
It seems unlikely that the mother of a slain officer - whose
surviving son is also a police officer - and the mother of a man
killed at the hands of police would see eye to eye.
But in different states and by different means, Loretta Cerbelli
and Sue Nickerson are fighting for a common cause: Both want better
tracking and treatment of the mentally ill and more training for
police officers who deal with them. "Police officers should be on
alert when they get a call" concerning someone who is mentally ill,
says Ms. Nickerson, head of the Maryland chapter of Concerns of
Police Survivors. "Then maybe they could defuse the situation."
In Philadelphia last month, Julio Morais clashed with officers
who were called to his apartment to help commit him to a mental
hospital. Mr. Morais stabbed an officer and was subsequently shot in
the head. It was the third time in six months that a mentally ill
person was killed by Philadelphia police. Just before Christmas last
year, officers shot and killed a woman who had been running naked
down a street and who had come at them with a knife.
These deaths might have been avoided if police had been better
trained, says Susan Rogers, director of special projects for the
Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania.
"Police officers don't want to kill the mentally ill," Ms. Rogers
says. "They are responding out of fear."
Although the Philadelphia Police Department did not return calls
for this story, officers have said that the killings appear to have
Such shootings occur around the country with a frequency that
alarms advocates of the mentally ill.
In part, it's because more mentally ill people are on the streets
than ever before - 500,000 more today than there were in the 1960s,
when it was easier to commit them to institutions, says James Fyfe,
deputy commissioner for training with the New York Police
Department. Mr. Fyfe says NYPD dispatchers take a call from an
emotionally disturbed person, or an EDP in police lingo, every 7.3
People on both sides agree these individuals can be as dangerous
to the public and police officers as rational criminals. But
advocates say different police tactics could greatly reduce the
likelihood of violence.
Much of what police officers are trained to do in dealing with
rational criminals is dangerously wrong when it comes to the
mentally ill, said Ron Honberg, legal director of the National
Association for the
"Closing in on someone, sending out a SWAT team - these are
prescriptions for disaster," he says. When officers "learn to keep
their distance and talk soothingly, it significantly cuts down the
chance of escalation."
Many in law enforcement agree.
Some large cities have trained officers to deal with the mentally
ill and work in collaboration with mental health agencies, a model
that was pioneered in Memphis, Tenn. …