ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — St. Pete Police leaders are making changes in the wake of a deadly shooting involving an officer and a man who they say was dealing with a mental health crisis.
A new Pinellas County Use of Force Task Force report found the actions of an officer who fired her weapon, killing a man in August were justified. However, the report found several problems with the way officers handled the situation that lead up to the 55-year-old St. Pete man’s death.
“She was in a fight for her life,” Police Chief Anthony Holloway said regarding his officer who shot a man who choked her during an encounter on August 7. The incident happened at the French Quarter North Condos on Fourth Street in St. Pete.
Holloway says his officers were responding to a call about a man who stole a neighbor’s outdoor furniture, valued at around $60.
St. Petersburg Police say Jeffrey Haarsma choked Officer Alison Savarese as she tried to arrest him at the condo building.
Officer Savarese ended up shooting and killing Haarsma.
Yet, the new report from the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, which conducted an independent investigation into the shooting, found the officer never should have been in the situation.
Haarsma had a documented history of mental illness and the task force finds the call should have been handled as a mental health issue and not as a criminal investigation.
David Myers, a long-time neighbor of Haarsma says officers often interacted with Jeffrey Haarsma but rarely took action.
“Numerous people, including myself, have called the police on him over the years and nothing ever happened,” he said.
Jeffrey Haarsma’s sister Debbie Haarsma, who lives in Illinois, says she believes Jeffrey would be alive if officers handled the situation better.
“I am upset with the way the officers involved responded and interacted with my brother,” she wrote in a text message to ABC Action News. “They knew my brother suffered from mental illness and they knew he was having an episode. Rather than deescalate the situation with my brother, the police brought a gun into the equation and harassed him and made the scene more volatile. They failed to appreciate the severity of their agitation and knew they were dealing with a person having an obvious mental break. If the police had been trained appropriately my brother would still be alive.”
Now, St. Petersburg Police leaders are taking steps to do more by proactively checking in at homes with several mental health calls, giving officers more information before they’re dispatched and requiring mental health first aid training for all officers.
Dr. Ladonna Butler says those changes are crucial.
“Individuals who are in crisis or distress have different responses and by having someone well trained in crisis management and symptoms of mental health, it allows them to interpret the behaviors more sensitively. We cannot arrest our way out of a mental health crisis,” Butler added.
St. Petersburg Police are also planning to send a social worker alongside an officer to future mental health calls. That program, which St. Pete Police hoped to launch on October 1, is taking longer to get underway. However, it’s now expected to be up and running by mid-January, according to Chief Holloway.
Butler is anxious to see it get started.
“We are criminalizing mental health versus treating it. We have the opportunity to do the right thing with the right resources in our community,” she said.
Holloway agreed, “We’re going to continue to look at the process and continue to see what we can do better.”
According to the Use of Force report, officers were called out for situations involving Haarsma 25 times in the past three years.
“The system failed the deceased. For years we had gone out to this location with police interaction, psychologist interaction, we didn’t do anything for the deceased. Law enforcement can only do so much, but what else can we do?” Holloway said while vowing to find more solutions.