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Sheriff: Restraint policies under review after mentally ill man's death

Posted April 1, 2013
Updated April 2, 2013

Jonathan Lee Cunningham (Photo courtesy of Josh Wilkerson)
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— Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison said Monday that policies regarding involuntary psychiatric commitments will be reviewed after deputies killed a mentally ill man Sunday who stole a patrol car while being transported to a mental hospital.

Deputy Jeremy Pittman was carrying Jonathan Lee Cunningham to Old Vineyard Behavioral Health Services in Winston-Salem when Cunningham tried to overpower Pittman on Interstate 440 near Lake Boone Trail. During an altercation on the side of the highway, Cunningham was able to steal the cruiser.

Cunningham, 35, of Durham, was sitting in the front seat with Pittman and wasn't handcuffed. Harrison defended the move but said his department would look into the situation.

"His car did not have a cage in it, and it was his call to put the person in the front seat," the sheriff said. "I would have put the person in the front seat also."

Harrison noted that people committing a family member for psychiatric treatment sometimes don't want their relative restrained, adding that handcuffs might "excite" an otherwise docile person.

"Sometimes things happen. Will we change? I don't know. We'll certainly talk about it. The statute gives us the authority to handcuff or not handcuff," he said.

"It’s a two-edge sword when you have families begging you not to put their families in handcuffs (and) then you have others saying, 'Why didn’t you handcuff him?'" he said. "What’s the right way? That’s the determination deputies and myself have to make."

Garner police were able to transport Cunningham to the Wake County Crisis and Assessment Center on Saturday evening without any problems, but they declined to comment on the case Monday.

Jonathan Lee Cunningham Eyewitness describes crash that led to shooting of mentally ill man

A relative called 911 asking for police to pick Cunningham up in some woods off Timber Drive because he was unstable. He later called 911 again and warned police that Cunningham had been "grabbing steering wheels."

Harrison said he wasn't sure whether Pittman was told of Cunningham's history when he picked him up at the crisis center.

Wake County deputies transported people for involuntary commitments between 1,700 and 2,000 times in 2012, the sheriff said. Although his department is always trying to upgrade procedures, he said, it's doubtful any additional training would have prevented Sunday's incident.

I-540 police activity Sheriff doubts more training would have prevented death

"You can 'what if' a lot of things," he said. "We want to do what's the best thing and the right thing. It’s a tragedy any way you look at it for the family that was involved and for the officers."

The Basic Law Enforcement Training required by agencies statewide includes eight hours on dealing with people with mental illness. The North Carolina Justice Academy worked with the Wake County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness to revise the curriculum, which was updated last year.

Debi Dihoff, state director for NAMI, however, said training might not be sufficient to prevent tragedies.

"The training really does not cover transport issues," she said. "It covers the interaction."

After Cunningham stole the cruiser, he led authorities on a chase on Interstate 40 and Interstate 540 before crashing off I-540 near Leesville Road. He fled the area on foot, and after another struggle with authorities, he was shot and killed.

Wake County deputies Matthew Johnson and Dusty Mullen have been placed on administrative duty while the State Bureau of Investigation investigates, which is standard protocol in an officer-involved shooting.


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  • Lightfoot3 Apr 4, 2013

    "How many more times can you bring that up?" - subanitov

    Given the makeup of participants is dynamic, it's worth repeating for newcomers whenever the subject somes up. The "cops never do any wrong" folks don't have a monopoly.

    "one isolated incident" -subanitov

    One incident? Google Rampart Division of the LAPD for some enlightenment. And that's just one of the more famous cases. Read the news.

    "is not indicitive of every other officer in the world." - subanitov

    Neither said or implied. But those that deny a cop can do wrong live in a fantasy world.

  • subanitov Apr 3, 2013

    "On the flip side, I have personally witnessed a cop planting a knife on a guy he just shot." Lightfoot3

    How many more times can you bring that up? Yawwwn. Even IF it were true, one isolated incident many years ago is not indicitive of every other officer in the world.

  • jacamillo Apr 2, 2013

    Barfly...maybe Winston-Salem was the first place with a bed that met Cunningham's specific needs. We don't know all of those details. I doubt any favors were done.

  • Barfly Apr 2, 2013

    I assume Cunningham was involuntarly committed, therefore it was Wake Co. SD's job to transport him to an appropriate psych. facility. Normally, that would be Central Regional Hospital in Butner. It's possible WCSD was doing the family a favor by driving him to Winston Salem. We know that didn't end well. What a shame.

  • Lightfoot3 Apr 2, 2013

    "People need to think twice before getting the "authorities" involved in situations like this with their loved ones." - Hans

    Bingo! When you call the cops, you introduce people with guns with other priorities than the family.

    "Whatever happened that caused the officers to kill him will be ferreted out." - undefeated

    Unless there's video, the truth may or may not be entirely known.

    "Some cops are good and some are really really bad." - bubbba

    You got that right. I've seen cops go out of their way to help. On the flip side, I have personally witnessed a cop planting a knife on a guy he just shot.

  • Dnut Apr 2, 2013

    @Dnut: "But we are not taught to intimidate, escalate, anything. If anything, it's the other way around."
    >>>>Okay, it's obvious, you hate law enforcement, no matter what, we got that, but speaking for one who deals with convicted felons, mentally disturbed, courts and all, you have no clue as to what your talking about..

  • mdh67 Apr 2, 2013

    I don't think any Deputy uses force lightly. The Deputy would be completely justified in using deadly force if he was in fear of his life. I think that is the case. My guess is that the man reached for the deputy's weapon when they tried to restrain him. The question is whether he could have taken steps prior to that point to avoid the situation. Certainly, if they tried to restrain him when they were armed and he reached for their weapons, then the answer may be don't have armed deputies restraining the mentally ill. I do hope the Sheriff and mental health professionals work together to find protocol that protects both officers and the mentally ill.

  • bubbba Apr 2, 2013

    I don't know where you get this information from. Officers are now taught communication skills, crisis intervention, less lethal force, dealing with persons with mental illness, cultural diversity, etc., etc.... But they are also taught to defend themselves so that they can go home at night. Where do you people get these ideas from? Go to NC Administrative Code Chapter 9. It's public record each and every required course for a sworn law enforcement officer in the state, plus the certification for their instructors. Do some research for pity's sake.
    April 2, 2013 10:15 a.m

    I did my research. I can swear before my God, your God, the whole stinkin Justice system what three dirty cops did to me one night AFTER I was awoken from a sleeping bed, surrendered, and placed in handcuffs in my own home. I just dont choose to air my dirty laundry on GOLO.
    Some cops are good and some are really really bad.

  • kitelover110 Apr 2, 2013

    I was involved in transporting prisoners for 40 years prior to my retirement. My policy was that if the person was being transported by me, I would search them and restrain them. If a non-security vehicle was to be used, the person would be retrained with handcuffs and waist chain, placed in the front seat and belted in by the seat belt. This is for the safety and security of everone and thee was no deviation from that policy for anyone.

    Some may recall the incident in the late '70's involving Officer D. D. Adams of the Raleigh PD who was shot and killed by a lady who he was going to transport. Because he was acquainted with the lady, he did not search or restrain her but placed her in the back seat of his vehicle. As he pulled out of the parking lot, she shot him in the back of the head.

    My suggestion to Sheriff Harrison (and all LEO) is that if the person is to be transported, he/she should always be restrained.

  • whoodathunk Apr 2, 2013

    @Dnut: "But we are not taught to intimidate, escalate, anything. If anything, it's the other way around."