DELMAR— Dispatch crackles over police radio, ordering officers to respond to a call about a man with a knife.
Bethlehem Police officer Matthew Dring responds to the Mansion Boulevard address. He chooses to leave both his siren and lights off as he weaves through the complex. The last bit of sunlight was escaping the day behind the tall snow banks from the monstrous winter storm the day before. The lights and sounds help move people safely away from a patrol car while in pursuit. In this case, the veteran officer knew the suspect was in the area, and he didn’t want to scare him away.
As he steps out of his patrol car a large man wearing a heavy winter coat approaches. He recognizes the man as the suspect. Dring had answered a call involving him at this address in the past. He shouts for the suspect to stop. He ignores him.
“I realized pretty quickly he was walking towards me with a purpose,” Dring said, describing the moment several months later from the warmth of a meeting room at Town Hall. He recalls seeing the suspect draw out an 8-inch kitchen knife from his right pocket. He remembers pulling out his pistol. Hearing the suspect, described as a hulking 6-foot, 5-inches tall and 300 pounds, scream out “I want to die.” And, the uneasy footing between him and the icy slush on the pavement.
The mind has a way of recording more details in times of crisis. Whereas you may not recall the delivery person standing in the office lobby as you walked into work this morning, you can recall everything about the car that pulled out in front of you while on the way there. The color of the car. The scratches on the bumper. The befuddled look on the other driver’s face. Neuroscientists say a moment of stress triggers our brains to process everything we see in a split second when we feel we’re in danger.
Force was justified
In so many cases involving mental-health crises, this is the moment where the situation often becomes tragic. Article 35 of New York State Penal Code details how physical force can be justified. Bethlehem Police Commander Jim Rexford said Dring was in such a situation.
“When someone is coming at you with a knife, and you know that it can kill you, you are permitted to use deadly physical force,” Rexford said. “But that is only in the ultimate escalation and that is not where we want to be. So we will use every alternative before that.”
During the police reform process mandated by Gov. Andrew Cuomo last year, many departments discussed different ways of improving outcomes on responses to mental health crises. During the review process in Bethlehem the discussion came up about having social workers ride with or respond to mental health calls. That may have proved fatal in this case, but they are still looking for new innovative ideas.
“There seems to be two popular sides to the idea of responding to a mental health crisis — only social workers or only police,” said Katie Flanigan, Clinical Director of Emergency/Crisis services and Training for the Albany County Department of Mental Health.
She said, it is not that simple.
“There are so many CIT (Crisis Intervention Training) programs using different approaches,” Flanigan said. “We use that knowledge in developing new programs.”
Dring graduated from Zone 5 Regional Law Enforcement Training Academy in Schenectady five years ago. All police officers who graduate from a police academy in New York state train for similar scenarios. Flanigan, who also teaches a curriculum developed by her department as a general topic instructor for mental health, works with officer recruits. NYSOMH recently increased the mandated training hours during an academy term from 16 to 20 hours, partly to address the increased frequency of incidents involving mental health crises.
“We talk a lot about communication skills and how to recognize non-verbal communication. That is so important,” she said.
Scenario Based Training is a helpful teaching process that involves role playing to instill deescalating techniques.
“As a responder you are faced with very dangerous scenarios, but it is much better to be faced with these situations in a classroom setting first,” Flanigan said. “Safety has to be the top priority for all involved … communication is a way to de-escalate a situation that is unsafe or one that could become unsafe. It can really help in the process of getting someone the help they need.”
‘You blink and it happens’
From outside his patrol car, Dring processed everything he was seeing. The suspect in front of him. The two utility trucks in view. The maintenance men who stood outside. The condominiums bustling with people around them. All were within the line of fire. He holsters his weapon and switches on his on-body radio.
He makes the decision within a few seconds. “You blink and it happens,” he said. He now concentrates on maintaining communication with both the suspect and fellow police officers responding to the scene. He also needs to keep space between himself and the knife.
Suddenly the suspect ran sideways in the direction of another patrol vehicle driven by Dring’s backup Officer Yekaterina Dickerson, who was pulling into the parking lot, but this time he didn’t stop.
“Holy shit [he is not stopping]”, Dickerson said, as she recalled thinking within those first moments. She was stepping out of her car when the suspect charged after her. She yelled for him to stop before escaping back behind the closed door of her patrol car.
“I was halfway out of the car and yelled at him but he kept coming,” she said. “I had a choice to get out of the car and possibly trip and he does what he does or get back in the car and slam the door. … It is like half of my brain was thinking ‘Today is the day I am going to be on the news,’” she said, “and the other part is like, ‘No. I am not going to let Bethlehem be on the news.’”
Dickerson jumped back in and shut the door before the suspect proceeded to pound the window with the knife. The exchange happened quickly before Dring chased him away on foot. She jumped out and both officers discharged their Tasers.
He still had the knife.
“Everytime we tried to give him directives and commands he tried to grab at the knife, and move at us,” Dring said. At one point, he described the suspect being within seven feet of him, “jolting towards me, wanting me to react.” He responded by continuously calling him by name, establishing familiarity, and offering to help. “If I can get him to a point where I can successfully have him agree to drop that knife and get any type of help and counseling or aid he needs, that is my goal.”
The visual of the incident was not captured. Because Dring drove in without his lights on, his on-board camera was not automatically activated. Neither officer was wearing a body camera. The Town of Bethlehem does not currently equip its police department with body cameras.
The exchange took place off to the side of Dickerson’s patrol car. It’s on-board camera, however, recorded audio of the suspect yelling at them both. His wish to die just three minutes before had changed to a plea for help. “I want to go to the hospital.”
“I can help you,” said Dring, “but you have to drop the knife.”
Dring and Dickerson were able to disarm the suspect through a furious exchange of words. The Tasers had little effect. When Rexford entered the scene, he observed where the prongs landed. The suspect’s winter coat and thick jeans prevented them from making contact with his skin.
“There was enough to make him feel something,” he said. “[But] he was able to mentally fight through the pain because it wasn’t hitting him with full capacity.”
The suspect was handcuffed and escorted into an ambulance. Bethlehem Police Chief Gina Cocchiara said that de-escalation techniques are critical to the job.
“That is part of actual policing. We deal with so many calls where we deal with people it is second nature to most police officers. It is what we do and how we talk to people. It is how we mediate circumstances and solve problems every day,” she said.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an increase in calls relating to mental health and police officers are often on the front line, especially in cases where the person in crisis is a danger to themselves or others.
In Albany County, however, police agencies don’t have to go it alone. The Mobile Crisis Team, based at the Capital District Psychiatric Center and staffed by county mental health staff, works with police departments when there is someone who is in need of mental health support. This team responds with or without a police presence, depending on if there is a safety risk to the person or others.
The team responded in person to 1,200 calls in 2019 and serviced another 1,000 via support over the phone. Only about 50 percent of the calls include police support, Flanigan said.
“Sometimes it is people looking for support,” she said. “Other times there is a safety concern for them or others. Even though we don’t always respond with the police, sometimes we have to bring them in because of safety. Not everyone wants to go to the hospital and sometimes they really need to.”
Mobile Crisis Team sometimes co-responds with officers when there is a safety concern. In those situations, Flanigan said, officers secure the scene before social workers go face to face with the individual. The team also provides 40 hours of training for law enforcement officers from county agencies twice a year. The training was disrupted by COVID-19 last year. The team plans to resume the program in the fall.
This spring, Albany County began a new pilot program in the hilltowns with dedicated teams. Albany County Sheriff’s Department EMS teams trained for mental health crisis response. The ACCORD program puts a licenced social worker with an EMT or Paramedic to respond to mental health related calls in the Albany County hilltowns.
If the pilot is deemed effective, county officials said it may expand to other areas.
Not every call is the same
This is a story that happens more often than people realize and is rarely told in the news. This incident came to the attention of The Spotlight staff this spring after the two officers received recognition for how they handled the incident.
“This was the best outcome possible you could have,” Rexford said. “Nobody got hurt, everyone went home safe and the guy got the help he needed, hopefully.”
“You use your training and you use your instinct and no call is the same,” Dring said “Every call free flows differently. Every call is hopefully going to end in a positive light, but you have to understand that it could go very differently.”
Go our youtube channel to view the video and hear the audio of the incident from the dashboard cameras of the patrol cars.
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