MIAMI GARDENS, Florida — Catherine Daniels had seen this kind of behavior before. On a chilly Sunday morning, about an hour before sunrise, her 25-year-old son was pacing back and forth outside their Miami Gardens home, going through a psychotic episode. Diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, Lavall Hall had just been released from a mental hospital a week earlier—the latest in a string of visits. She asked him to come in from the cold. But when he began threatening her with a broomstick handle, she realized how bad he was.
Daniels locked herself inside the house and called the police to help get him back to the hospital, just as she did the previous week. She says that she told police about her son's mental illnesses, and that he took medication.
When police arrived at the scene, a scuffle broke out. A few moments later, Hall was shot twice in the middle of his own street—once in the arm and a fatal shot to the chest. As he lay struggling on the concrete, police handcuffed him. He was pronounced dead shortly after.
"Why did they take my child's life when I called for help?" Daniels asked local government officials at a Miami Gardens City Commission meeting on Wednesday, fighting through tears.
"I just want answers," she said.
The tragedy has sparked protests in a troubled city with a long history of police abuses, and has brought a renewed focus on how police interact with individuals who suffer from mental illnesses.
Hall's case, as disturbing as it is, is part of a larger problem. It bears a striking resemblance to the death of Tenisha Anderson, a bipolar woman who was killed by Cleveland police last November, as police were trying to take her to a mental health facility.
Her case was highlighted in a 58-page Department of Justice report on the Cleveland police, issued last December, after the police shooting of 12-year old Tamir Rice. "Officers too often use unreasonable force against individuals with mental illness, individuals in medical crisis and individuals with impaired faculties," the report found.
"At least half of the people shot and killed by police each year in this country have mental health problems,” a recent joint report from the Treatment Advocacy Center and National Sheriffs' Association estimated.
Nationwide, about 10 percent of the calls police get are for someone with a mental illness, estimates Michael Woody, President of CIT International, an organization he says has trained about 20,000 Florida police officers on how to interact with the mentally ill.
"You have to realize that sometimes just your uniform can escalate things, because it is a symbol of authority," he said, wondering out loud why Miami Gardens police were so close to Hall that he was posing a threat to them with a broomstick handle. Two of the officers were struck with it before the shooting, Miami Gardens police say, with one officer requiring stitches.
"As an officer you need to know that there is a different protocol when dealing with someone who is sick," Woody said. "We tell [officers]: no matter how irate they are, keep a civil tone, speak slower and lower than them, and try to gain their trust. Usually you can end up having a good conversation with them."
Woody calls the Miami Gardens case a "very unfortunate tragedy."
The issue of policing mental illness is particularly potent in Miami-Dade County; the county has the highest rate of mental illness in the country. About 9.1 percent of the population has what the courts consider to be a serious mental illness: schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression, to name a few. That adds up to more than 210,000 individuals in the county.
And yet the Eleventh Judicial Circuit of Florida's Criminal Mental Health Project estimates that fewer than 13 percent of these individuals receive care in the public mental health system. "As a result, law enforcement and correctional officers have increasingly become the lone responders to people in crisis due to untreated mental illnesses," the court says.
On any given day, it adds, the county jail houses about 1,200 of these individuals, or about 17 percent of the daily inmate population. "The county jail now serves as the largest psychiatric facility in the State of Florida," the court says.
In recent years, the county has started giving officers CIT (crisis intervention team) training en masse, and diverting known mentally ill suspects to public mental health centers, rather charging them with misdemeanors. The tactic has been so successful in reducing the number of mentally ill arrests that the notorious "Forgotten Floor" of county jail, which long housed mentally ill suspected criminals in horrifying and overpacked conditions, was able to shut its doors last December.
But back in Miami Gardens, the county’s improvements are of little comfort to Hall's family members, some of whom suffer from mental illnesses of their own.
"I am 100 percent PTSD, and I get mad," Alonso Hill, a cousin of Hall, told councilmembers at Wednesday's meeting, venting his mounting frustration with city police in a passion plea for change. "I don't know if I suffer through a mentally ill attack tonight, if you will let your officers shoot me down like a dog. I'm scared, because they have a green light."
"I'm scared as hell to be in Miami Gardens," he said.
According to Miami Gardens Police Chief Steve Johnson, the two officers involved with Hall's shooting, who are currently on paid injured administrative leave, had been CIT trained. Shortly after the shooting, he said that the officers "did the best they could" before firing their weapons, adding that Hall had "continued to be combative" after officers gave him "several commands." Before firing their pistols, both officers had used their Tasers on Hall, Johnson said.
One of the officers involved in the shooting had previously opened fire in 2013, in which he killed a suspected murderer during a gun battle, Johnson said.
Over the years, Miami Gardens, one of the largest black-majority cities in the nation, has dealt with long-standing crime and policing issues. It consistently ranks among the most violent cities in the country, according to FBI statistics. Last year, a Fusion investigation found the city's stop and frisk policy so rampant and abusive that we labeled it "Suspect City," a phrase that residents have come to adopt.
Notably, the city of about 110,000 was the hometown of Trayvon Martin, the black teen whose 2012 shooting by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida began a renewed national conversation about race, violence and the criminal justice system.
Hall's case has drawn additional outrage from the family after police chief Johnson said that he would release 911 audio and dashcam video that he says captured the incident, and then later said that he could not do it, since all evidence in the case had been handed over to the State Attorney's Office. Family and activists in the city have called on the chief to make the video and audio public anyway.
Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver G. Gilbert III said it is the city's position that the video and audio should be released, but that its hands are tied now that the state is involved. The State Attorney's Office told Fusion that since an investigation has been opened into Hall's death, none of the evidence related to the case is a matter of public record at this point.
Glen Goldberg, Hall's family's attorney, told Fusion he is working on obtaining the video, and that an investigator is gathering evidence for a possible lawsuit. "Right now we're just trying to get the facts," he said. "One thing I can say is that the neighbors keep giving us different stories than what the police are saying what happened."
Fighting through sobs, Daniels, Hall's mother, pleaded for the release of the tapes outside of city hall.
"They need to release that tape so we can get the truth here," she said. "They don't even want to release it. They're covering a whole lot of evidence for my child's death."
Hall will be buried on Saturday.
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.