Sheriff: Restraint policies under review after mentally ill man's death
Posted April 1, 2013
Updated April 2, 2013
Raleigh, N.C. — 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.
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.
"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.