Despite student shooting, UPD a national mentor on mental-illness response

Published: Thursday, January 20, 2011 at 5:34 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 20, 2011 at 11:00 p.m.

Less than a year after one of its officers shot a mentally ill student, the University of Florida Police Department has been chosen to mentor other law enforcement agencies in improving their responses to people with mental illness.

The New York-based nonprofit Council of State Governments Justice Center has selected UPD as one of six departments across the U.S. to participate in the program. The goal is helping police improve through being able to visit, question and get material from other departments, said Blake Norton, the center's project director for law enforcement initiatives.

She said UPD was chosen in part for its collaboration with other parts of the university and willingness to learn. The center was aware of the March 2 shooting of doctoral student Kofi Adu-Brempong before making its selection, she said, but it was not a main focus.

"I think their response to the incident and how seriously they took it is what's important," she said.

Adu-Brempong had been experiencing delusions about a plot to kill him when UPD responded to a report of screaming from his campus apartment. He was reportedly threatening officers with a table leg when he was shot with a rifle in the face and hand.

Adu-Brempong suffered major injuries but survived. UPD later fired Lt. Stacy Ettel, the commanding officer at the incident.

UF Police Chief Linda Stump said the shooting was a "horrible" situation but she believes the department has taken responsibility and learned from it. The mentoring program will allow other agencies to take lessons from the incident, she said, as well as the department's longer track record of successfully dealing with people suffering from mental illness.

"We do want people to learn from our mistakes, and we do want people to learn from things we do very well," she said.

Adu-Brempong and his family members couldn't be reached for comment about the department's selection for the program. Dave Schneider of Students for a Democratic Society, which protested the shooting and has called for changes at UPD, said it was "ludicrous" that the department was picked.

"I think it insults the student body, and I think it insults Kofi Adu-Brempong," Schneider said.

UF professor Bruce Stevens, co-president of the Gainesville chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said he believed UPD had learned from the shooting and was trying to help others. Stevens has been a critic of UPD's actions in the incident.

"I don't approve of what they've done before," he said. "The thing that I applaud is they're learning from their mistakes ... and they're passing that on."

An internal police investigation released in August blamed Ettel for violating department policy rather than finding fault in UPD policy. A consulting firm hired by the university in the wake of the shooting made 19 recommendations for changes, but they largely deal with parts of the university other than police and are still being reviewed.

UPD Capt. Darren Baxley said the department applied for the mentoring program in July, submitting its policies on how it responds to people suffering from mental illness. While the formal announcement was made Thursday, he said the department was chosen in October and has already done phone consultations with a few departments.

The center received 46 applications from 24 different states, choosing UPD after conducting phone interviews and a site visit. The other five selections were the Houston Police Department, the Los Angeles Police Department, the Madison (Wis.) Police Department, the Portland (Maine) Police Department and the Salt Lake City Police Department.

UPD received a one-year, renewable grant of $5,000 to offset the cost of training other departments. Baxley anticipates police departments at universities and in communities with universities will seek advice from UPD. He expects UPD to also be able to gain something from the experience.

"Quite frankly, each department faces adversity and challenges and obstacles that you've got to learn from," he said.

Both Baxley and Stump pointed to a planned public information campaign as being a positive change since the shooting.

The effort, expected to start in the fall, is intended to encourage students and others on campus to care for one another, getting help for people with mental illness.

Baxley said a greater awareness of the issue on campus might have gotten Adu-Brempong the help he needed before police responded.

"It's my belief we would have had a much different outcome with Kofi," he said.

Contact Nathan Crabbe at 388-3176.

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