Leonard Pitts: A model of policing we too seldom see

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 28, 2021

We need to talk about what happened last week when police confronted a mentally disturbed man at a convenience store near Washington, D.C.

They helped him. Yes, that was a bait-and-switch. But it wouldn’t have worked if you weren’t primed to expect something worse. Certainly, you’d be justified, given some of the headlines of recent years.

In July of 2016, for instance, the unarmed caregiver of a 26-year-old man with autism was shot and wounded by a police officer in North Miami while lying flat on the pavement with hands raised. The officer said he was aiming for the man with autism, who was sitting in the street playing with a toy truck.

In March of 2020, a 41-year-old man in Rochester who had been walking the streets naked and babbling died after police pressed his face to the pavement for two minutes.

In September of that same year, police in Salt Lake City shot an unarmed 13-year-old boy with Asperger syndrome 11 times; though grievously wounded, he survived.

The Treatment Advocacy Center, a nonprofit mental-health organization in Arlington, Virginia, reports that people with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to die at the hands of police. A Washington Post analysis reveals that nearly one in four of the 6,139 people shot and killed by police since 2015 were known to have mental illness.

So yes, a lot could have happened last week in Hyattsville, Maryland, when Officers Edgar Andrickson-Franco and Mancini Gaskill responded to a call about a man in a gas-station convenience store, babbling nonsensically. What did happen, according to police, is that they convinced the man to let them go through his phone and find a number for a cousin, who agreed to pick him up.

“While we were waiting for his cousin,” says Andrickson-Franco, “the gentleman kind of just dropped his belongings to the floor. He stopped talking for a period of time and he abruptly sat down on the floor as well. One thing I learned through my training … was that I needed to get on his level to have a better understanding of what he was going through.” So Andrickson-Franco got down on the floor and engaged the man until the cousin arrived, remaining calm even as the disturbed man berated him.

The officer says that what happened is not out of the ordinary for him or his department, and maybe not. Yet a picture of him, seated cross-legged on the floor with the troubled man, struck such a chord that the story made first local, and then national, news. Small wonder. It represents a model of policing we too seldom get to see.

Adrienne Augustus, who doubles as the department’s spokeswoman and mental-health programs manager, says Hyattsville has prioritized helping its officers better handle mental-health crisis calls with a regime that includes “not just de-escalation training, but also educational opportunities like a mental illness 101 and other types of training, like an extensive three-hour autism training.”

In the midst of our current push to reimagine policing, it is worth considering what that training helped enable last week. The fact that Andrickson-Franco made news by getting on the floor testifies to what we’ve come to expect from police encounters with mentally impaired people. These officers upended that expectation. Faced with a distraught and abusive man, they resorted, not to force, but to compassion. We’ll be a better nation when that becomes the norm.

And not the news.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 3511 NW 91st Ave., Miami, Fla., 33172. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.