Since the fatal shooting last March of unarmed veteran Anthony Hill, DeKalb County has mandated that each of its officers undergo training on dealing with the mentally ill.
Officer Robert Olsen, who faces the possibility of murder charges for shooting Hill, underwent 40 hours of such training back in 2009, according to his personnel file and records obtained from the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council.
Yet his actions on the day he encountered Hill appear inconsistent with his training, which focuses on de-escalation, though crisis instructors are quick to point out the safety of the officer is paramount.
“We don’t consider this to be foolproof,” said GBI special agent Debbie Shaw, program administrator for the Crisis Intervention Team. “But if the training is followed it’s effective 80 to 90 percent of the time,” she said.
The Crisis Intervention Team has trained 9,300 local, state and federal law enforcement officers since it began in 2004. Atlanta, Roswell, Henry County and now DeKalb are among the local agencies that require all of its officers to take the class.
Shaw said bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder are among the mental conditions that officers are taught to identify.
Hill, a veteran of the Afghanistan War who was 27 when he died, suffered from both disorders. He was medically discharged from the Air Force in April 2013.
The aspiring musician was plagued by nightmares when he returned stateside and, according to girlfriend Bridget Anderson, was eventually prescribed Lamictal, used to delay mood episodes in adults who are bipolar or suffer from manic depression.
The medication had adverse effects, causing his tongue to swell and jaw to lock. Hill stopped taking it two weeks before he died, Anderson said. It’s unclear whether he took it on March 9, when he stripped nude and scaled the wall outside his second-floor apartment.
A neighbor who knew Hill called 911 to report her concerns. The call was dispatched as a “suspicious person,” which, to an officer, indicates possible criminal behavior.
THERE TO HELP THEM
According to witnesses, Olsen arrived at the Chamblee Heights apartments and observed Hill for roughly four minutes from a distance of about 180 feet. During that time Hill was sitting in what Eric Echols — an investigator for lawyer Chris Chestnut, who represents the dead man’s family — described as a “praying position” before jogging toward the officer.
In the GBI’s crisis training, officers are encouraged to engage the subject utilizing “softer, more positive” language to let the person know “you’re there to help them,” Shaw said.
“We try to switch the thought process to be more communicative and less authoritative,” she said. “You want to try and get a two-way interaction. The more you allow the individual to talk, the more you can learn.”
According to witnesses and his own account, Olsen made no effort to engage Hill, ordering him, twice, to stop. But Hill kept coming.
VERY VOLATILE SITUATION
Olsen told a civil grand jury last October that he feared for his safety, believing Hill was under the influence of PCP and bath salts. But Hill’s behavior was clearly hallucinatory, Pat Strode, the program administrator for the Georgia chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a 2014 interview.
Asking Olsen to recognize this is asking a lot, said former DeKalb District Attorney J. Tom Morgan, now a defense attorney who has represented officers charged with excessive use of force.
Olsen’s attorneys have not responded to requests for comment from The AJC.
“Officers have the right to defend themselves from physical danger,” Morgan said. “Look at what (Olsen) knew at the time. He’s got this guy, very fit and strong, coming towards him. He doesn’t obey commands. The officer has no idea what he’s going to do. It’s a very volatile situation.”
DEADLY FORCE WARRANTED?
How volatile depends on whose version of events you accept. Echols said several witnesses told him that Hill slowed as he neared Olsen.
“When he got close to the officer his hands were out and up. His fist was not balled. There was not any aggressive stance,” he said.
On Thursday, DeKalb District Attorney Robert James announced that he will present a six-count indictment on Jan. 21 to a grand jury, which will then decide whether to indict Olsen in Hill’s death.
The question for jurors, according to Morgan: “Did that officer, in that moment of time, have a reasonable belief that the use of deadly force was warranted?”
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