Mental Illness Meets a Bullet in Normal Heights

Anné Josefson walks toward a table outside the Starbucks in La Mesa’s Grossmont Center, carrying a black three-ring binder. Clasped inside are two 11-by-24-inch pictures of her son, Nathan Manning. She opens the binder, displaying a picture of a young man with long, wavy brown hair sitting on a step, holding a classical guitar, and smiling. She then recounts the phone call she received on May 20 at 8:00 p.m. from her ex-husband. “He told me that Nathan had been killed by a policeman.”

Tears appear in her light blue eyes, showing through tinted sunglasses. She pauses, as if she has not yet processed the news.

Josefson explains that her son suffered from bipolar disorder, and she talks about his manic episodes and his struggles to fit into society. But she stresses that he was kind and caring and that his manic episodes never turned violent.

She describes the last time she saw her son at her Scripps Ranch home, ten days before his death. He appeared “grounded” and “hopeful,” she says. In April he’d moved into an apartment in Normal Heights with a friend. He was teaching classical guitar at a music store in El Cajon, applying the master’s degree in music he received from San Diego State University. During their visit, Manning told her that he’d stopped taking his medication, convinced he could handle his condition without it.

“He was where he wanted to be,” she says. “He wasn’t ready to die. He had just started to live.” Josefson pauses, as tears reappear in her eyes.

She returns to the phone call she received from her ex-husband and then jumps to the press release issued by the San Diego Police Department the day of her son’s death, an account she says is inaccurate and misleading.

According to the district attorney’s review of the shooting and other sources, on the afternoon of May 20, 31-year-old Nathan Manning was chasing his roommate down Adams Avenue near the corner of Hawley Boulevard in Normal Heights. Manning was dressed in pajamas, and the review says he was “pushing and hitting” his roommate in the middle of the street. Minutes later, San Diego Police Department Detective Edward Jones, an 18-year veteran on the force, arrived at the scene. Jones was dressed in plain clothes and wore a badge on a chain around his neck. Jones identified himself and took out his baton. Manning charged him. Jones struck Manning on the shoulder with his baton. A scuffle ensued. Manning “began choking [Jones] around the neck,” according to the district attorney’s review, and he “also tried to take the detective’s gun away from him.” Jones removed the gun from his holster and fired a single, fatal shot into Manning’s abdomen.

Josefson says there are inconsistencies in the police department’s press release and media accounts that day. “Some facts were just wrong,” she says. “They said Nathan took a swing at [his roommate, Tom Montes] with a metal object and that Nathan and his roommate were in a fight in the street. [Montes] stated on the news afterwards that they were not fighting.”

Adds Josefson: “We just want information. We don’t know what made this officer shoot him. We don’t know why backup wasn’t called.”

The family’s search for more information about what happened that day has been unsuccessful. They say that the police department refuses to hand over the police report. They are upset and angry at the way law enforcement and the press portrayed Manning.

During a phone interview, Nathan’s brother Noah Manning, who lives in Seattle, says, “Our family is primarily interested in honoring Nathan’s life and making sure people know about the real life behind the headline ‘Mentally Ill Man Killed by Police.’

“The San Diego Police Department and the district attorney painted a picture to the public and the community that portrays my brother as a violent, mentally ill troublemaker instead of the funny, creative, and gentle music teacher with a master’s degree in classical guitar.”

Noah Manning and his family say they want to bring public awareness to the methods law enforcement uses when dealing with people suffering from mental illnesses. They want to see more training for officers and more use of nonlethal methods. “Our community needs to come together to help, not hurt, these individuals,” says Noah Manning.

During our conversation, Noah says he understands the difficulties that police officers face when finding themselves in any potentially dangerous situation. He says his family’s goal isn’t to criticize law enforcement, but his anguish and grief show through.

“How do you best explain and justify to the public the need to use lethal force against an unarmed man in his socks and pajamas in the middle of the afternoon?”

Explanations are hard to find, as are policies to guide law enforcement officers when they deal with people who may be mentally ill.

In San Diego County, “None of the police departments either have, nor will they disclose to the public, any written policy on how to deal with mental health events,” says Eric Revere, a member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Revere is also a member of the County’s Mental Health Board, and he chairs its Critical Incidents Committee. The committee is looking into what he refers to as a “recent increase in serious incidents within the county involving mentally ill individuals.”

Following Nathan Manning’s death, Revere met with representatives from the San Diego Police Department, the County’s Mental Health Department, and the Psychiatric Emergency Response Team, and a $10,000 grant was announced to make more training available to officers and dispatchers and to fund educational leaflets for family members and the general public, which Revere expects to be available by February 2011.

The grant is small in comparison to the need.

“If the [mentally ill person] brandishes a weapon or physically assaults [the officer], they will respond with less-than-lethal or lethal force as their judgment dictates,” says Revere.

“All too often it is lethal force that is used, especially if the officers involved do not have the experience and knowledge in dealing with mentally ill persons.”

Revere’s statement is supported by statistics. According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, a national nonprofit promoting the treatment of mental illness, officer-involved justifiable homicides occur in this country at a rate nearly four times greater in the mentally ill population than in the general public.

In December 2007, the San Diego district attorney’s office issued a report titled “Officer-Involved Shooting Review,” an analysis of 200 cases, both fatal and nonfatal, that the office had investigated between 1996 and 2007. The report stated that the presence of drugs and/or mental illness occurred in 154 of the 200 officer-involved shootings. Of the 154 cases, 26 involved people with documented mental illnesses, 36 involved mental illness and drugs, and 52 involved people exhibiting “unstable behavior.”

When asked how many mentally ill people have been shot by law enforcement officers in the county between 2007 and 2010, deputy district attorney Richard Armstrong responded: “A determination of how many involved persons were mentally ill is not feasible. ‘Mentally ill’ is an amorphous term — some persons involved in officer-involved shootings might have severe mental health issues, others might have minor mental health issues, many have none. There is no ‘check box’ for mental health status in evaluating these events.”

Asked if the district attorney’s office takes into account a suspect’s mental health condition when reviewing an officer-involved shooting, Armstrong responded: “Our office does not treat an incident any differently if the suspect/victim has a mental disability. Our review determines whether or not the use of deadly force in an incident was legally justified.”

San Diego County does have one program to aid law enforcement. If notified that a mental health emergency exists, police dispatchers may alert a Psychiatric Emergency Response Team.

Twenty-three teams, each comprising a licensed mental health clinician and a specially trained officer, work in shifts throughout the county to provide support in a crisis. The program is a partnership of county law enforcement agencies, administered by a nonprofit.

Sitting inside the response team’s headquarters, in an office building off Morena Boulevard in Linda Vista, Dr. Jim Fix, the executive director, explains the difficulties of responding to mental health emergencies and talks of the increase in calls during recent years.

“The recipe for disaster is somebody who is severely psychotic and agitated, and law enforcement. It has the potential to be very volatile. When these two subsets come together, very good things can happen and very bad things can happen.”

Fix says that calls for the psychiatric response teams have increased by 15 percent each year for the past five years. In 2009, teams fielded 15,000 calls, 7500 of which required mental health interventions.

“We’re just scratching the surface of the calls coming in,” Fix says. “There are fewer resources compared to the number of people who need them.”

Fix blames the increased need on the poor economy, the high number of veterans plagued by post-traumatic stress disorder, and the cuts to mental health programs.

Fix and the response team’s board of directors would like to secure more funds to use for training. Currently, the program offers training sessions four times a year for 50 officers per session.

“I’m working my tail off to increase the training to the best of my ability,” says Fix.

Until such training is routine for all officers, and until law enforcement agencies develop transparent policies and procedures for handling incidents involving mentally ill people, grieving families such as Nathan Manning’s will be left to search for explanations as to why an officer killed their loved one.

“It seems to me that the San Diego Police Department was mostly focused on circling their wagons to protect their own interests, keeping all known information close to the chest, and leaving grieving family members and friends to play a veritable shell game, looking under cups for the actual truth about what really happened,” writes Noah Manning in a follow-up email. 

“What options are available to my family to find the true facts surrounding the death of my brother? It would appear the answer is: grieve, grin and bear it, or file a lawsuit. [The latter requires] time, energy, and money. And, the perception by some that greed is our motivating factor — nothing could be further from the truth.”

Two weeks ago, Nathan Manning’s parents filed a formal complaint with the San Diego Police Department, a prelude to filing a lawsuit.

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