Police mental health training under scrutiny in fatal North Fulton shooting

The family of a Somali refugee who was killed by North Fulton police on Saturday is calling into question the mental health training of the officers who shot her.

Authorities said Shukri Ali Said, 36, was wielding a knife near the intersection of Abbots Bridge and Sweet Creek roads Saturday when she was shot by two Johns Creek police officers. GBI spokesman Bahan Rich said the officers opened fire after tasers and a foam impact round failed to make Said drop the knife. She later died of her injuries at Emory Johns Creek Hospital.

The Georgia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, speaking on behalf of Said’s family, said she had battled bipolar disorder “and other mental illnesses” for eight years before she died. When Said’s older sister called 911 to get emergency mental health assistance for her, she wasn’t anticipating a violent response.

“We think mental illness is the major factor here,” CAIR executive director Edward Ahmad Mitchell said. “There is currently no evidence that race or religion played a role, but the risk of implicit bias is something that should always be considered in these situations.”

Said gained American citizenship after coming to the United States as a refugee when she was 11. News of hear death at the hands of police picked up steam on social media Monday.

Georgia law enforcement officers receive some mental health education in basic training, but they can opt to receive additional, comprehensive training through the state’s Crisis Intervention Team program, said Special Agent Debbie Shaw of the Georgia Public Safety Training Center. Shaw said the 40-hour course trains officers to recognize mental illness and respond in a way that’s appropriate to the person’s mental state.

The Johns Creek Police Department has its own Crisis Intervention Team and participates in the advanced mental health training. The department did not immediately respond to questions about whether the two officers involved in the shooting took part. They are on administrative leave pending GBI investigation on the use of force.

CIT training emphasizes verbal de-escalation; Use of force, Shaw said, is not part of the curriculum at all.

“It helps them to recognize signs and symptoms an individual might be having,” she said.

The department’s use of force policy cautions police officers to consider “the possibility that a subject’s non-compliance may be the result of factors which are not an attempt to resist.” Among the factors listed are mental impairment, developmental disability and behavioral crisis.

Shaw said if a person is experiencing a mental health crisis that warrants a 911 call, the caller can ask specifically for a CIT-trained officer to respond if one is available. She said it’s important to give the 911 dispatcher as much information as possible about the situation, including information about the person’s mental state.

Said’s family said they did that, and they’re now encouraging every police department in the state to use body cameras and “implement tactics used to peacefully deescalate conflicts with mentally ill individuals.”

“The family called 911 out of love for Shukri, not fear of her,” Mitchell said. “They specifically reported that Shukri was mentally ill, and they expected an ambulance to take her to a hospital. They did not expect her arrest, much less her death.”

Now, Said’s family is questioning why the officers weren’t able to de-escalate the situation rather than use deadly force.

Said is the 22nd person in Georgia to be shot by police this year, and the 14th to be killed.