Michael Paul Williams columnist

“Stay in the car!”

Once we can hear the video, the first sound we hear from Richmond police officer Michael Nyantakyi is this shouted instruction as he points his firearm at the car Marcus-David Peters had driven into a stand of trees.

“Male seems to be mentally unstable as we speak,” Nyantakyi says into his radio.

From there, matters escalate. Peters, who is naked, exits the car window, runs onto the interstate highway and collides with a passing car before flopping around on the pavement. It’s here that he spots Nyantakyi, whose Taser is trained on him, and begins advancing toward the officer, verbalizing threats.

Eighteen seconds later, the officer shoots Peters twice in the abdomen after unsuccessfully attempting to use the Taser on him.

Whatever mental health crisis intervention training Nyantakyi received — and the details of that training remain unclear — his response appears to have painted him in a corner he felt compelled to shoot his way out of.

“The video raises questions about a lack of competence of the officer to de-escalate the situation or respond effectively with less than lethal force,” said Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia.

“It also underscores the need for a mechanism to ensure an objective investigation and decision about prosecution by people who do not work with the officer involved every day.”

On Friday, I asked the Richmond Police Department for its handbook or document that outlines its protocol for dealing with someone in a crisis related to mental health or substance abuse.

Karla E. Peters, assistant to the department’s general counsel, replied via email that the department is researching and reviewing my request. But citing Virginia’s open records law, she added: “In order to completely and properly respond without negatively impacting public safety and our intense operational responsibilities, the department is entitled to and elects to utilize seven additional days to respond.”

Based on the officer’s bodycam footage of the May 14 incident, I have to wonder if the department’s crisis intervention training is effective enough to safeguard either the civilians in a meltdown or the officers who respond. Nyantakyi, for instance, should not have been going it alone.

State Sen. Creigh Deeds, an advocate for mental health reform, said Friday that he had read about Peters’ death but hadn’t watched the police camera footage online. In 2013, Deeds was stabbed multiple times at his Bath County home by his mentally ill son, Gus, who then took his own life after being released from court-ordered emergency custody because the mental health system had failed to find a psychiatric hospital bed for him in time.

“I’m not going to pass any judgment on what happened in Richmond,” Deeds said. But he’s bullish on the benefits of effective crisis intervention training for law enforcement, which he says de-escalates situations.

“Mental health is implicated over and over again when people have interactions with the criminal justice system,” he said. When law enforcement organizations are well-versed in crisis intervention, “you wind up with safer officers, a safer community and just better outcomes all around.”

The outcome in Richmond could hardly be worse. And the email from the police department general counsel’s assistant — in which she declined to immediately release information on protocols for dealing with people in crisis — came after Police Chief Alfred Durham had touted the department’s transparency during the showing of the video.

Indeed, he met with members of the Peters family and their attorney “in the interest of transparency,” though he declined to share much from that meeting other than saying it was an emotional moment for all involved.

“Those questions presented by the family and the attorney were answered to the best of our ability,” Durham added. “Those questions that we could have answered, we did.”

But not to the satisfaction of the family, based on the comments of Peters’ sister, Princess Blanding.

During a news conference on the steps of Second Baptist Church in Randolph on Friday, Blanding said the video confirmed what she already knew: “Marcus was unarmed, clearly in distress and in need of help, and instead of receiving help, he received two fatal bullets.”

Among her lingering questions:

  • Once the officer noted that Peters was mentally unstable, why did he engage him? And after Peters was lying on the ground with his ultimately fatal wounds, why did Nyantakyi advise a state trooper to prepare to use lethal force again if necessary?
  • Why didn’t the police officer use pepper spray or hand-to-hand combat? Blanding also noted that the Taser never fully contacted Peters — one of its prongs missed.

“As a black person, how do we know, if we are in need of help, that it will not result in death?” Blanding asked.

No one from the police department seems to be offering any scenarios on how this might have played out without a fatality. Durham characterized the incident as a singular kind of event.

The chief said that based on his research, it requires five to eight years of training to become a psychologist, a psychiatrist or mental health counselor.

“Our police department gives our officers 40 hours. Five to eight years, and we do 40 hours. And people expect — and I’m not even talking about this situation, ladies and gentlemen — people expect us to go out there and get it right.”

Well, we certainly have a right to expect police to get it right. There’s too much at stake. But getting it right requires an honest assessment of what went wrong, and not just by the police. I’m troubled at how accepting some folks feel about this outcome. Any use of lethal force against a clearly unarmed civilian — and one potentially in the throes of a mental health crisis — should set off a round of introspection of existing policies and practices.

“I wish that we did not have to be here today,” Durham said. “If we could go back and change the outcome, I think we all would agree. Unfortunately, life doesn’t give us a rewind button. What we have to do now is move forward.”

But moving forward, the department needs to hit the rewind on what happened in this case. It’s unfathomable that lethal force is the best response it can muster to a situation like this.

For safer officers and a safer community, it must do better.

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mwilliams@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6815

Twitter: @RTDMPW

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