Huffpost Crime
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Eliyahu Federman Headshot

Police Fatally Shoot Mentally Ill Teen

Posted: Updated:
Print Article

On Jan. 23, 2012, at about 4:30 p.m., Christian Chavez, a troubled 18-year-old, was shot and killed by the California Kern County Sheriff's Department (KCSD), near Buttonwillow Park, in Kern County, CA.

The Bakersfield Californian reported that according to eyewitnesses, including the teens caseworker, the teen was shot while pointing a knife at his own chest, as a presumably suicidal gesture. The police version was that during a pat-down search the boy raised the knife in the direction of Deputy Jeremy Storar, at which time Deputy Storar and Deputy Tommy Robins "fired and struck Mr. Chavez several times" killing him.

The teen was clearly troubled and needed help. His family said he was "a good teen who struggled with mental illness." His caseworker called the police after he began talking about suicidal feelings that he was having.

It is hard to say without more facts whether the police used excessive force in this particular situation, but given the fact that the young man threatened to commit suicide just moments before the police were called, it is quite plausible that, as eyewitnesses reported, the knife was in fact pointed at his own chest.

In 1998 my father, Lyle Federman, a software developer and theologian with no criminal record, never suspected of any crime, and according to several deputies posing no threat, was also shot by the KCSD. There was certainly a mishandling and insensitivity toward my father's mental state at the time. I highly suspect that the same may be true in Chavez's case.

My family successfully sued the county for my father's death. In 2003, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals denied Kern County qualified immunity, affirming a District Court ruling that the Bakersfield police used excessive force when they broke into my father's home without a warrant and shot him while he posed no threat, all under the pretense of taking him for a psychiatric evaluation. See Federman v. County of Kern, 61 Fed. Appx. 438, Page 8 (9th Cir.2003).

I have since graduated law school, interned for civil rights lawyer Ron Kuby, and, while not entrenched in my work-life as an executive at an e-commerce company, I dedicate time fighting for civil liberties, raising awareness on sexual abuse issues, advocating for gender equality, seeking to improve police-community relations and, in my father's memory, protesting injustice when I see it.

As surprising as this may sound, police nationwide do not have uniform or mandatory training when it comes to dealing with those suffering from mental illness. Just last year USA Today reported that when it comes to mental health training "there is no rule for how much training, or what kind of training, officers should undergo."

According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness, one in four adults--approximately 57.7 million Americans-- experience a mental health disorder in a given year and one in 17 lives with a serious mental illness. Considering that the police regularly interact with and confront citizens with mental illness, it is imperative that uniform and mandatory mental health training for police be required.

A 2010 study in the journal Schizophrenia Bulletin, reported that officers who underwent training on how to handle scenarios involving mentally ill people, were less likely to use unnecessary deadly force and were better equipped to de-escalate a potentially violent situation.

Instead of approaching the situation calmly to diffuse a confrontation, the Chavez family attorney, Daniel Rodriguez, explained:

[t]he deputy approached the car and said to the boy, 'Get out of the car. I said get out of the car!' That kind of tone of voice, that just made matters worse. That is the exact thing you're not supposed to do as law enforcement. According to the witnesses, there was never any threat. He did pull out a knife, but he pointed it at his chest, not at the deputy.

Kern County Sheriff's Chief Deputy Shelly Castaneda, explained that the two deputies involved in this shooting had not attended a 40-hour mental health-training course offered to some deputies. This comes as no surprise. Perhaps better mental health training could have prevented the tragic killing of Christian and many others.

My heart goes out to the Chavez family. I hope they find some sense of solace and justice, and that the KCSD and police departments nationwide begin to implement more rigorous mental health training for police officers.