Mental illness is no 'explanation' in Fairfax police shooting

The scene in Fairfax after David Masters's shooting by police.
The scene in Fairfax after David Masters's shooting by police. (Jahi Chikwendiu/the Washington Post)
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By Pete Earley
Sunday, February 7, 2010

When Fairfax Commonwealth's Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh announced on Jan. 27 that his office would not file charges in the death of David A. Masters, shot by a still-unnamed county police officer, he offered this stunning summary of what happened:

"Unfortunately, we had a mentally ill man who was behaving bizarrely," Morrogh said. "His family indicated he was behaving under delusions, that he might feel he was under attack if approached by the police. I think that's the explanation for his actions."

Morrogh's speculative statement connects Masters's mental illness to his actions immediately prior to the shooting, making this appear to be yet another tragic story about a "mentally ill man" who became delusional, paranoid and dangerous, and ended up being shot by the police. But this isn't something that can be determined based on the evidence, something a prosecutor in particular ought to adhere to -- especially when he's justifying the police shooting of an unarmed man.

In November, Masters, 52, was fatally shot in his Chevrolet Blazer at a busy intersection after being stopped by police, who suspected him of stealing flowers from a planter outside a local business.

According to Morrogh's own account of the incident, three Fairfax police officers approached the Blazer. When the car in front of Masters moved, Masters's vehicle began to roll forward, and one of the officers had to dart out of the way to avoid being hit. And then a 26-year-old officer next to the vehicle drew his sidearm and fired twice.

That officer, and only that officer among all the witnesses, told investigators he saw Masters reach down for something. The officer fired, Morrogh said, because he believed Masters was reaching for a weapon.

In addition, the prosecutor said, before the shooting "Mr. Masters was opening his coat and pointing at his chest in his coat and making gestures of that nature." He also said that Masters was also "gesturing toward the police" and "challenging them."

How does Morrogh get from this set of facts to the conclusion that Masters's mental illness was the underlying cause of this chain of events?

The three officers did not know that Masters had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder when they confronted him. Many drivers open their jackets to retrieve their wallets when stopped by the police. The fact that a driver might be belligerent or challenge the police when confronted is not some automatic signal that he is mentally ill. What proof does Morrogh have that Masters was in the midst of a psychotic or delusional episode when he was stopped?

Those who have followed this story will know that on the day before his death, Masters refused to stop for a Fredericksburg officer after running a red light. The officer followed Masters, who drove slowly for more than a mile before stopping. Unlike the Fairfax police, however, the Fredericksburg officer was aware that Masters had a mental illness; that information was displayed on the computer screen in his squad car, a result of a previous encounter with police. This officer issued him two citations and let him go. Obviously, he did not believe that Masters's mental impairment was significant enough to keep him from driving away.

There are two disturbing problems here, and they are two sides of the same coin. The first is Morrogh's apparent eagerness to draw a line between Masters's mental illness and his death at the hands of a police officer. This is deeply stigmatizing. Morrogh's statement implies that individuals with mental illnesses cannot control their disorders and are prone to violence, neither of which is true. Bipolar disorder causes a person to experience dramatic mood changes, often slipping rapidly from feelings of euphoria into depression. It does not necessarily cause delusions nor paranoia about the police.

The second problem is that even if Masters's disorder actually was a factor, there is an excellent chance that the officers who confronted him were not trained in how to determine whether someone acting "bizarrely" is psychotic.

Crisis Intervention Training is a nationally recognized program that teaches police officers how to use a minimum of force to handle people with severe mental illnesses. Fairfax County made the training available in 2008. No money was budgeted and the instructors were volunteers, but despite this lack of support, 8.5 percent -- about 120 officers -- of Fairfax police took part. The training has not been offered since, mainly because the two officers who taught the class were promoted out of the patrol division and their bosses do not consider CIT a priority.

One lesson from this case is that the Fairfax Police Department should begin CIT again to better prepare its officers. Another is that prosecutor Morrogh should be careful not to marginalize those with mental disorders. Masters was not a "mentally ill man." He was a "man who happened to have a mental illness." It is a subtle, yet critical, distinction.

Pete Earley is the author of "Crazy: A Father's Search Through America's Mental Health Madness."

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