Bipolar teen's death in police station highlights rift between cops, mentally ill

Law enforcement is generally the last place families of mentally ill patients turn. But the CIT program may help change that

Kristiana Coignard’s story is as tragic as it is tragically unexceptional. (Photo: Courtesy of Heather Robertson)

Kristiana Coignard walked into the lobby of an East Texas police station last month with a knife in her waistband and “I have a gun” written on her hand. After asking for help, she instigated a scuffle with police officers that ended in her shooting death. A few days later, police released a security video of the encounter as proof that the officers who shot Coignard were justified in doing so. She was 17 years old.

She also, according to her aunt, Heather Robertson, had been struggling with depression and bipolar disorder for much of her life. Robertson told ThinkProgress that two separate suicide attempts had landed her niece in the hospital in recent years but that Coignard had been keeping up with regular therapy and medication since December, when she came to live with her aunt in Longview, Texas.

“I think it was a cry for help,” Robertson said of the police interaction that ended in Coignard’s death. “I think they could have done something. They are grown men. I think there is something they are not telling us.”

Coignard’s story is as tragic as it is tragically unexceptional. In fact, the recently piqued public interest in police brutality seems to have revealed Americans with mental illness as the population most vulnerable to excessive or unnecessary use of force by law enforcement.

While there is no official data on police shootings in the U.S., last year more than a dozen encounters between police and mentally ill civilians ended with the civilian being fatally shot — and those are just the deaths that made the news. This does not include situations in which the victim had a gun. In these cases, the person killed was either unarmed or wielding a weapon that would be no match against a cop with a firearm, like a screwdriver, a baseball bat, or a knife.

In many of these cases, the officers involved were actually responding to a call for help from a member of the victim’s family, as law enforcement is commonly viewed as the only — if not last — resort for help to diffuse a mentally ill loved one’s violent outburst, psychotic break or suicidal behavior.

It was Keith Vidal’s mother and stepfather, for example, who called 911 for backup last January during one of the schizophrenic 18-year-old’s episodes. Vidal had refused to take his medicine and was threatening his mom with a screwdriver. Three officers from three different North Carolina jurisdictions responded to the call and, according to Vidal’s parents, the first two officers on the scene seemed to pacify the situation. But things escalated, they said, when the third officer arrived. In stepfather Mark Wilsey’s account, the 90-pound teenager had already been tased and was restrained on the ground by the other two cops when the third officer said, “We don’t have time for this,” and shot Vidal in front of his mother and Wilsey. The third officer, eventually identified as Bryon Vassey of the Southport Police Department, had reportedly been on the scene for 70 seconds when he radioed out the message that he’d fired shots in self-defense.

A few days after his death, Vidal’s parents and family showed up uninvited to a press conference held by the district attorney’s office, holding signs and pictures of Vidal and demanding justice.

“My word that I want to get out to every family that has a mentally ill patient: Do not call the police department for help because your son probably will get shot and killed, just like mine did,” Vidal’s mother, Mary Wilsey, told reporters. “Think twice about who you call for help.”

Vidal's family may eventually get some justice. Brunswick County District Attorney announced Tuesday that Officer Vassey has been indicted on a voluntary manslaughter charge. But they'll never get their son back.

Retired Maj. Sam Cochran says it’s not uncommon for families to hesitate to call the police when a loved one is in crisis, out of fear of what might happen. Cochran understands that fear but, at the same time, calls it a “pretty sad commentary” on the relationship between law enforcement and the mentally ill population.

It’s a relationship that Cochran has been working for over 25 years to improve. Back in 1987, when he was a lieutenant in the Memphis Police Department, Cochran was nominated to coordinate a community task force following the shooting death of a mentally ill man by officers who’d responded to emergency calls from the man’s family. From that task force came the creation of what is now known as the Memphis Police Services Crisis Intervention Team, or CIT, model. Part of the model is a 40-hour specialized training for police officers responding to emergency calls about people with mental illness. The other part involves partnerships between law enforcement, the mental health community and advocacy groups.

Approximately 2,700 U.S. police departments have implemented the CIT model since it was first created in Memphis. And Cochran, who retired from the Memphis Police Department after 30 years of service, travels the country helping other law enforcement agencies execute his program.

The first step to getting it right, Cochran says, is understanding that a real, working relationship between a community’s law enforcement, advocacy groups and mental health professionals is just as important — if not more so — than officer training.

“It’s kind of like a marriage: You’ve got to work at it, and you’ve got to nurture it in order for it to be successful,” Cochran told Yahoo News. “You can’t just give the training and say, ‘We’ve got CIT.’ If you don’t work it or nurture it, great training doesn’t matter.”

Laura Usher of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) agrees. Which is why, she says, mandating nationwide CIT training for all law enforcement agencies would be a start, but not a solution.

As the CIT coordinator for NAMI’s headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, Usher represents the advocacy branch of that all-important partnership. She points to the fragmentation and defunding of the country’s mental health system over the past few decades as the driving force behind increased encounters between police and people with mental illness.

“People don’t know where to go for help; a lot of times, they feel like they’re on their own. So police are the first line of response,” Usher told Yahoo News.

The absence of abundant, affordable and easily accessible mental health services has seen a comparative rise in the number of mentally ill inmates, parolees, emergency room patients and, though fortunately less common, police casualties.

“What you see on the news is just the tip of the of the iceberg,” Usher said, referring to stories like Kristiana Coignard’s or Keith Vidal’s. “The absolute worst situations get the attention, but they reveal just a tiny percentage of this huge tragedy.”

Paton Blough found himself in the middle of this tragedy 10 years ago. After successfully managing his bipolar disorder with therapy and medication for about three years, an extreme manic episode launched him on a terrifying tour of the criminal justice system. He was arrested six times within three years, racking up a variety of felony and misdemeanor convictions. He cycled in and out of jail and mental hospitals, ruled by paranoid delusions and extreme depression, before a jail counselor finally helped him get his psychosis and severe depression under control. It was on the road to recovery that Blough learned about NAMI and, eventually, the CIT program.

In 2010, Blough was back on track, living in Greenville, South Carolina, with his new wife when Andrew Torres, a local man with mental illness, died after he was tased in a tussle with police. Torres’s death showed Blough just how lucky he was in comparison. After all the pepper spray, Tasers and batons he’d been hit with in his many police altercations, he’d never even been seriously injured. He decided to get involved with NAMI that year and has been sharing his story with police officers undergoing CIT training across the country since.

“Advocacy, being able to tell my story, is a big part of my recovery,” Blough told Yahoo News. “It makes me feel better to think that maybe this stuff happened for a reason. To help other people through my advocacy makes me feel like there was more purpose even in the horrible events of my life.”

Usher highlights that the historic friction between law enforcement and the mental health community is what makes the CIT model truly revolutionary.

“Often, this is the very first time a police department has sat down with their local mental health agency and talked about this major issue that they have in common,” Usher said.

Getting these two entities on the same team is crucial to the model’s success. As is maintaining an open dialogue between police, hospitals, homeless shelters and substance-abuse treatment centers. Not all mental illnesses are created equal, nor are the individuals they inflict or the treatments they require. That’s why, beyond training officers to respond to mental health emergencies, the CIT program is ideally a communitywide effort to connect members of its mentally ill population with the right services to best help avoid future crises.

“It’s all in good faith,” Usher said. “We want to encourage communities to work together. You can mandate training, but you can’t mandate investment and commitment to work together.”

A study published in the April 2014 issue of the American Psychiatric Association journal Psychiatric Services declared Crisis Intervention Training “effective in improving officers’ knowledge, attitude and skills” when responding to individuals with behavioral disorders. The study examined the behavior of nearly 600 officers in over 1,000 emergency encounters and found that the officers with CIT training “had sizeable and persisting improvements in knowledge, diverse attitudes about mental illnesses and their treatments, self-efficacy for interacting with someone with psychosis or suicidality, social distance stigma, de-escalation skills and referral decisions.”

Yet while the study found that interactions between CIT-trained officers and people with mental illness were more likely to result in the person’s referral or transport to mental health services than in the person’s arrest, the researchers also noted that “there was no difference in use of force between officers with CIT training and those without.”

The same month that study was released, a CIT-trained police officer in Palo Alto, California, fatally shot a 53-year-old woman in the doorway of her house.

The woman had told 911 dispatchers that she was suicidal and was planning to provoke officers to kill her. CIT-trained Sgt. Alan Wolf was called on to respond to what was clearly a mental health crisis, and he arrived to the woman’s house with two other officers in tow. This was exactly the sort of situation Wolf had been trained to diffuse. Yet when the 5-foot-5 woman opened her front door and greeted the three armed officers with an aluminum baseball bat in hand, Wolf’s and fellow officer Andrew McGuire’s response was to open fire.

Though the woman did not injure, let alone manage to even hit any of the officers who responded to her 911 call, Lt. Kurt Clarke of the Santa Clara Police Department defended the decision to shoot.

“It unfolded rather quickly,” Clarke said following the incident. “She made a motion toward the officers, and they didn’t have any other options than to use their firearms.”

About a month after Vidal’s death, the officer who shot him was indicted. His parents, the Wilseys, are already several steps farther along the path to justice for their slain son than most families who’ve lost loved ones in tangles with police.

The agents who shot Coignard were put on paid administrative leave. But a few days after her death, The Longview Police Department released a 25-minute, audio-less security video depicting the altercation as proof that the agents who shot the teenage girl had acted within protocol.

The officers may have, in fact, acted within the department’s protocol. But as her aunt argued, Coignard’s death at the police station also might have been avoided. The two are not mutually exclusive.

“I don’t want to say that if you had a CIT program, you wouldn’t have anybody lose their lives. That would be reckless to say,” Cochran said. “But after 34 years in law enforcement, the last 20 years in CIT, I can look at reports and say, ‘Another day, another time, this would have been fatal, but because we had CIT it ended safely.’”

“I’m not a prophet,” he said. “But many will say it saves lives.”