Armed and mentally ill: Is deadly force the only treatment left?

On the July morning Joseph Mann was shot and killed by Sacramento police, he wandered down a tree-shaded side street off Del Paso Boulevard and stopped to watch the residents of an apartment building who were drinking their morning coffee in a parking lot that doubles as a social space.

At least four adults and two kids were outside, and the way Mann stood and stared made them uncomfortable.

At first, “he was literally not moving … literally like a statue,” said Melissa Gudis, 49.

Mann began punching his finger in the air as if typing on an imaginary keyboard and urinated in his pants, said Shawntae Grimes, 39, another resident of the apartments.

It seemed clear that Mann was mentally ill.

“We basically told him you need to leave,” said Gudis. “We have kids here and you need to go.”

Instead, Mann took out a knife similar in size to a steak or Bowie knife, with a black grip and measuring about 6 to 8 inches in length, witnesses said. He began throwing it into the air and catching it by its handle.

The kids were sent inside. Police were called.

Within about 20 minutes of police arriving, Mann was dead.

The police killing of a mentally ill black man has raised enough questions that Sacramento City Council members made an unprecedented request last week to review video and audio in possession of the police. Council members later backed down on the advice of the city attorney, who told them to wait until investigations are complete.

But Mann’s family is losing patience and wants an answer to a single question: Did police have to resort to guns?

“All I’m trying to do is establish what happened to my brother,” said Robert Mann, Joseph Mann’s older brother. “Instead of de-escalating, (police) escalated the situation. Who deserves to die because they have mental health problems?”

Robert Mann, 52, said he knows many view his younger brother as a dangerous vagrant. Joseph Mann, 50, had a long history of run-ins with the law mostly dating from 2010 and mostly for misdemeanors, though it included at least one felony burglary charge, according to court records.

But that’s not the Joe he remembers.

He thinks of his brother as a tiny man, about 5-foot-4 and 110 pounds, a sharp dresser who loved wearing suits and listening to jazz. Joseph Mann worked 18 years as a union checker at the Raley’s supermarket on Mack Road, he said.

It is the memory of that younger Joseph Mann that keeps his brother fighting.

“It just sickens me to constantly kind of stereotype him as someone who has never done something worthwhile in his life,” Robert Mann said.

He said Joseph Mann began exhibiting mental illness after their mother’s death in 2011.

He says that Joseph had used drugs, but he attended Narcotics Anonymous meetings with him to support his recovery. He does not know the exact diagnosis Joseph Mann received, but said his brother had sought treatment at Heritage Oaks Hospital, an acute mental care facility on Auburn Boulevard, and the Sacramento County Mental Health Treatment Center.

Nothing seemed to keep Joseph Mann from deteriorating despite his efforts and those of his family of five siblings.

“He tried to pull himself out of it,” said Mann. “We knew that he was dealing with something that was beyond his control.”

High tensions

Chris Gudis, 55, Melissa’s husband, thought Mann was armed with more than a knife.

He made the 911 call, and told police he’d seen Mann pull something from the waistband of his pants.

“I don’t know for sure exactly what it was,” he said. “To me it looked like a gun.”

Four days earlier, a sniper shot five police officers during a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Dallas. That came after national unrest over police shootings of a black man in Louisiana and another in Minnesota. Anxiety was high across the country.

A police SUV unit arrived at the scene a few minutes after the 911 call, witnesses said. When Mann saw the unit, he began walking northeast from the apartment building to the intersection of Lochbrae and Southgate roads. He stopped at the corner, said Chris Gudis and other witnesses, and the police vehicle stopped nearby.

Police opened their doors but did not fully exit the car. Bystanders said police repeatedly ordered Mann to freeze and drop his weapon.

Mann became agitated and yelled back at officers.

“I am the law, come get me,” multiple witnesses heard him say.

On Southgate Road, Michele Rudek heard police speaking through a loudspeaker and looked out her front window to see Mann walking up her street, passing in front of her house.

Mann “was definitely threatening back, but he was walking away and (the police) were following,” she said. “He wasn’t walking toward them being aggressive toward them. I felt that he was just trying to get away and he was crazy.”

She said after Mann passed her house, he yelled, “I’m going to gut you,” at officers. Police continued to follow, inching along in their car and continuing to order him to stop and drop the knife.

Mann threw a silver metal Thermos at the police car around this time and then continued away from them, said Grimes, who followed up the street to see what would happen.

Rudek and four other witnesses said they thought police were escalating the situation rather than calming Mann down.

“They were obviously just making him feel more and more stressed, there is no question,” said Rudek. “There was no question he was feeling threatened because he’s even trying to walk away from the scene the whole distance and he’s saying everything just to get them to go away and they weren’t.”

But the Gudises said they felt police gave Mann multiple opportunities to comply.

Grimes said that Mann seemed to grow more agitated when additional police arrived on Del Paso Boulevard. Mann ran across Del Paso Boulevard and crouched behind a parked car. He “came in close proximity to a woman before running into oncoming traffic,” according to a police statement.

At one point, Mann took a football player stance with his hands on his knees and bounced back and forth as if getting ready to run a play in a game, witnesses said. Joseph Mann also ran toward one police vehicle with his knife raised, causing the officer in the car to lock his door, according to a police press release.

Mann then ran back to the sidewalk on the south side of the boulevard.

On video shot by a bystander, Mann appears to stop near a driveway between the brick facade of a tattoo shop and a bar, Stoney’s Rockin Rodeo. Both establishments were closed, like most businesses that morning, leaving the street mostly empty in the immediate area. A light-rail train heading toward downtown with about 40 people was stopped by police on the far side of the street.

Two police officers crossed from the median into the street toward Mann, who stood about 20 feet away on the sidewalk, based on witness accounts and bystander video. The officers closed to within 10 feet of Mann before many witnesses could no longer see what occurred because police vehicles obstructed their view.

Multiple witnesses said they heard a single gunshot, followed by a barrage of shots seconds later. It is unclear which officer fired the first shot or why.

The bystander who recorded the video, who asked not be be identified, was standing on Del Paso Boulevard and said the shots were unexpected. Based on how the situation had unfolded, “I wasn’t expecting no bullets,” he said.

“He was too far away from any cop to do any harm to them,” said another witness, Andre Booker, 35, who began watching the altercation on Southgate Road.

Immediately afterward, Mann slumped to the ground and the two officers ran to him, according to Booker, Grimes and another witness who did not wish to be identified. Grimes said they handcuffed Mann.

Two ambulances were dispatched to the scene, according to Fire Department records. One was for Mann and one for an officer who sustained a “lower body injury,” according to the police release. Sources familiar with the investigation said the officer fell while running, not from a direct altercation with Mann.

Mann was pronounced dead at a hospital, according to the police release.

Police later said Mann was armed with a knife. They never confirmed finding a gun.

The Sacramento Police Department is now referring all questions to City Attorney James Sanchez, who declined to comment on specifics of the case pending resolution of a federal civil rights lawsuit and a claim against the city filed by Mann’s family. Police Chief Sam Somers Jr. also declined Bee interview requests.

A big problem

A December 2015 study by the Treatment Advocacy Center found that at least 25 percent and up to half of fatal law enforcement encounters involved an untreated mentally ill person. People with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed by law enforcement during a police encounter than the general population.

Interactions with the mentally ill are likewise dangerous for police. A recent Department of Justice study found that about 20 percent of officers killed in the line of duty were killed by someone with mental illness.

“In discussions with law enforcement, this is one of their biggest fears,” said John Snook, one of the authors of the study. He said that while most officers in the United States do receive some training in dealing with mental illness, a lack of services and treatment options has left police and fire personnel on the front lines of dealing with severely mentally ill people.

“Unfortunately when that happens you have the worst possible mix for someone who really needs care,” he said. “If you are a person with severe mental illness and you are symptomatic, you hope the law enforcement officer you are dealing with has been very well trained.”

Tim Davis, president of the local union that represents Sacramento police officers and an officer himself for almost 19 years, declined to speak about the Mann case. But he said that police are increasingly tasked with dealing with mental illness. He said the push for officers to be mental service providers – and to face blame when they can’t – are sources of resentment for many in law enforcement.

“It’s sometimes frustrating for my officers to be the scapegoats,” he said. “Society has failed the mentally ill … the Band-Aid (is), ‘Let’s just send the police,’” he said. “We are the last resort and it should never get to that point … that we need to send police officers to handle these mental health crises.

“You can send police officers to mental health training all the time … but when some guy is running down the street with a knife, you don’t have time to say, ‘Well sir, let’s talk this out. I believe you’re having a mental health crisis.’ 

Mayor-Elect Darrell Steinberg said untreated mental illness is “the unattended issue of our time.”

He wants to reach critically mentally ill residents before they encounter law enforcement and has been working on a plan to expand outreach to the homeless population that is hardest to reach.

Steinberg also sees a need for better tactics for the inevitable times that police face mental health situations.

He declined to comment on the Mann case but said such events “speak to the need for real sustained training and conversation about how to better intervene with people who are living with severe mental illness.”

Robert Mann said that seeing such changes in outreach and training would be an important part of the resolution he is seeking.

He said that it is possible his brother in that last minute did menace police in a way that made them feel endangered.

But maybe he didn’t. And maybe there was something better than bullets that could have been done for Joseph Mann, that day or in the many years of decline that preceded it.

He just wants to know what happened in those final seconds.

“My brother was a good man,” he said. “That this is how his life ended is not right.”

Anita Chabria: 916-321-1049, @chabriaa

Joseph Mann’s final steps

Police shot Joseph Mann about 25 minutes after a 911 call reported threatening behavior. An account of his final steps, based on interviews with witnesses and police reports:

Map of Mann’s final steps 

1. Apartment residents call 911 to report Mann behaving oddly and waving a knife across the street from their complex.

2. Police arrive minutes later in an SUV, and Mann begins to walk toward the intersection of Lochbrae and Southgrate roads.

3. As he walks north on Southgate Road, Mann shouts at police officers following him in their vehicle. He also throws a Thermos at them.

4. As more police arrive, Mann runs across Del Paso Boulevard. He becomes more erratic.

5. A police report says Mann charged a police car with his knife raised. The officer locks his car door.

6. Mann crosses the boulevard again, stopping at a driveway between a tattoo shop and a bar. Police approach and fire on Mann, killing him.