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An Army vet in crisis; a family calls for help

December 25, 2018

COUSHATTA, La. (AP) — Crouched in a ball in her family’s living room, her hands covering her ears, Natalie Wilson was certain she was about to die.

Each gunshot sounded more like an explosion, seemingly dozens of them, filling the room with the smell of burnt gunpowder. Through the chaos she heard her son Preston, a 29-year-old U.S. Army veteran, shout his surrender as he retreated, gun in hand, into the guest bedroom. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see one of the sheriff’s deputies crawling toward the side door while another deputy screamed in his radio for help.

She had been asleep at the home on Banks Street earlier that morning when Preston burst through the door, panicked and going on about someone in the backseat of his car. Natalie rubbed her eyes, clutched her nightgown and went with Preston to check the car. It was maybe 4 in the morning and the August air outside was already thick with humidity.

“Preston, there’s nobody back there,” she told him — in vain. Her son was suffering another paranoid delusion. Such episodes had grown more frequent, and intense, in the years since his return from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As Preston paced about the house, Natalie called her daughter, Sydneye Thornton, 30 miles away in Natchitoches. It was usually Sydneye who could talk her older brother back to reality.

“Settle down Preston,” Sydneye told him on the phone. “It’s gonna be alright. Go to sleep.”

“They’re out there, Bam!” he replied, using the nickname he gave her. “I’ve seen them!”

Realizing she couldn’t calm her brother, Sydneye made a decision she has come to regret in the 16 months since that day: She called the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs crisis line.

The family thought paramedics would come take Preston to the VA hospital in Shreveport. Instead, two Red River Parish sheriff’s deputies were dispatched to 1218 Banks St. that morning.

Seven minutes after the first deputy knocked on the side door, Preston was dead, cut down in a brief but ferocious exchange of gunfire that wounded one of the deputies.

What happened in that Coushatta living room Aug. 2, 2017, exposes one of the most damaging consequences of Louisiana’s broken mental healthcare system: Years of budget cuts have pushed thousands of families affected by mental illness into a crisis. With limited or nonexistent options for care, responding to their calls for help often falls to police officers and sheriff’s deputies.

“They’re the first responders, and in a sense, the social workers to try to ease that situation and get the person some help,” said Victor Dennis Jr., treasurer with the Central Louisiana branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Some law enforcement agencies have embraced the need for policies and expanded training on how to respond to a growing number of these “103M” calls — the police code commonly used to denote a person with a mental illness. But many police chiefs and sheriffs across the state have failed to adopt policies to guide their officers on how to handle these delicate and potentially deadly situations.

NOLA.com ′ The Times-Picayune sought records from all 378 law enforcement agencies in Louisiana to see if they have adopted policies and training to guide officers responding to calls involving someone with a mental illness. Out of 146 agencies that responded as of early December, 84 — or 58 percent — did not have such a policy.

Many agencies still do not take advantage of that additional training, putting officers and the community in danger, advocates say.

“We are creating a system where we are putting people who are fragile in the hands of people who do not know how to handle them,” said the Rev. Alexis Anderson, a mental-health advocate in Baton Rouge.

Preston’s family remembered him as a goofy and, at times, mischievous child who was quick with a joke. In the town of Coushatta, he was known as “Tucker Boy” after maternal grandparents Freeman and Varion Tucker, natives of the small community on the banks of the Red River, about an hour southeast of Shreveport.

Preston’s father, Sidney Thornton, had been a star running back at nearby Northwestern State University and a second-round draft pick for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1977. He won two Super Bowls with the Steelers in six NFL seasons before retiring to coach high school football.

Preston also excelled on the football field, a quick and powerful running back who people thought could play in college. But he felt the shadow his father cast, and saw the game’s punishing toll on his dad’s health. Preston wanted something different, beyond football and beyond Coushatta. After his 2006 graduation from Red River High School, he enlisted in the U.S. Army.

“The Army was him getting away from everything,” his sister said.

Preston began his advanced Army training in the fall of 2006 at Fort Lee, Va., where he became fast friends with fellow enlistee Blaine Campbell.

“That was my brother,” Campbell said. “Everything was tolerable just because of his presence.”

Campbell and Preston were bunkmates in Virginia and lived together on a base in Germany, where they spent their down time playing Madden football and shooting pool at nearby bars.

It was during this time that Preston met his future wife and the mother of his first child, a daughter born not even six months after Preston and Campbell were deployed to Qayyarah Airfield West — known in military circles as “Q-West” — outside Mosul in northern Iraq.

A few months into their deployment, a roadside bomb destroyed a vehicle carrying both men. Campbell was physically injured in the explosion. He is reluctant to discuss the details.

“For me and a lot of other vets, there might be a singular incident: a bomb blows up a vehicle or the dining hall explodes,” he said. “It’s not that one incident. It’s the totality. If you compound tragic event after tragic event, it erodes your soul over time.”

Like his friend Preston, Campbell struggled to adjust to life back in the States. In June 2010, less than a year after he left Iraq, Campbell blacked out while cooking at his townhome near the base in Fort Rucker, Ala. He regained consciousness and looked down to see his dog bleeding from a knife wound to the stomach.

Panicked, he put pressure on the wound and called the VA crisis line. He walked outside, still holding his dog, when four police cars pulled up and officers with guns drawn approached, screaming at Campbell to put his hands in the air.

An acting first sergeant who lived nearby saw the police response and rushed over, yelling for officers to hold their fire. They handcuffed Campbell and took him to the emergency room. He eventually was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder — among other conditions — and received treatment at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

“Luckily I had an intervening person to de-escalate,” Campbell said of his encounter with police that day eight years ago. “I was scared as hell. I was assuming the crisis line was sending people to help me, and then they came with their guns drawn.”

“Fifty years of failed mental health policy” is how the nonprofit Treatment Advocacy Center describes the nationwide deinstitutionalization of public psychiatric hospitals and the lack of investment in community-based treatment options for the country’s estimated 7.9 million adults living with a severe mental illness.

The results, according to the advocacy center, “have placed law enforcement on the front lines of mental illness crisis response and turned jails and prisons into the new asylums.”

One in 10 calls for police service across the country are generated by people with a severe mental illness, according to a 2015 advocacy center report.

In Louisiana, years of budget cuts and the push to privatize health care dismantled the state’s network of indigent-care hospitals and shuttered public mental health hospitals in New Orleans, Greenwell Springs and Mandeville. Two remaining state-run psychiatric hospitals in Pineville and Jackson have lost funding and capacity over the years.

Law enforcement officials across Louisiana say those decisions have put a strain on their agencies. It’s difficult, though, to quantify how often police officers and sheriff’s deputies across the state field mental health-related service calls.

Some agencies use the 103M designation for someone with a possible mental illness. The New Orleans Police Department is one of those agencies, and in 2014, its officers responded to more than 3,800 calls classified as 103M, department records show. Three years later, that number rose to nearly 5,000.

The department is on pace to see a further increase in 103M calls in 2018, averaging 15 every day through the end of November.

Other law enforcement agencies do not specifically track encounters with people who have a mental illness. But even the ones that do note the 103M designation does not capture all interactions between police and people with a mental illness. Service calls for a variety of other incidents, from domestic violence to shoplifting, could include a mental-health component that would not show up in a search of 103M calls.

One window into the frequency of law enforcement responses to mental health crisis calls is through a coroner’s office. Louisiana’s 64 coroners by law have the authority to involuntarily commit people with mental illnesses who are believed to be a danger to themselves or others. Commitment orders can be done either through a coroner’s emergency certificate or through an order of protective custody. Not all require police involvement, though the latter usually do.

According to records obtained by NOLA.com ′ The Times-Picayune, coroner’s offices in 43 of Louisiana’s 64 parishes signed nearly 7,000 orders of protective custody last year, and issued more than 43,000 emergency certificates — an average of 118 statewide every day.

For her 26nd birthday, Sydneye Thornton and her brother Preston went to a casino in Shreveport. It was August of 2016, a little over four years after Preston returned home from a second tour of duty.

In the elevator on their way home, a man asked Sydneye if they had any luck — the kind of small talk people make at a casino. But to Preston, it was something else. He grabbed Sydneye and got out on a different floor. He chided his sister for talking to the man. “Bam, don’t do that! You don’t know who that is.”

On the car ride home, Preston was convinced they were being followed. He exited the interstate and double-backed down side roads. “Bam, you got to be aware of your surroundings,” he told her. “You don’t know who’s following you.”

This had become the reality for Preston and his family. Whatever he saw in the Army apparently left wounds that, over time, grew more visible to those around him. He withdrew from family and friends. His marriage crumbled. He wanted to start his own business, to reconnect with his four children. But his mind deceived him into thinking strangers — even loved ones — wanted to harm him.

Family and friends urged Preston to seek professional help, but he resisted.

“It wasn’t in the realm of his belief system to go get psychiatric help,” said Campbell. “I don’t know if it was just from the military, from being prideful, or his upbringing — always being the star athlete and the happy person everyone looks up to.”

Shortly before his death, Preston saw a psychiatrist and got a prescription for medicine to treat post-traumatic stress disorder.

In the last week of his life, he made plans to meet Campbell, who was in Dallas. The Saturday they were supposed to meet, Preston never showed up. He didn’t respond to Campbell’s calls or texts. That next day, on the way to the airport, Campbell got a concerning string of text messages from Preston:

Who is this?

You’re not my brother.

You’re not my kin folk.

You’re out here trying to get me.

Boarding the flight, Campbell turned to his wife: “Something’s wrong with Preston.”

Nicola Cotton was 24, two years into her job as a New Orleans police officer and eight weeks pregnant when she was shot dead with her service weapon, wrestled away in January 2008 by a man diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.

Four years earlier, another New Orleans officer — LaToya Johnson, 27 — was fatally shot while trying to serve a commitment order on a man whose family requested he receive a psychiatric evaluation.

Their deaths are a reminder of the dangers police face when encountering someone in a mental health crisis.

“You’re dealing with somebody when they’re in an acute state of psychosis, where there has to be 100 percent respect for unpredictability,” said Cecile Tebo, a licensed clinical social worker who helps train NOPD officers on how to respond to 103M calls.

The reality, though, is that a person who has a severe mental illness is 10 times more likely to be the victim of a violent crime than the general population, according to federal health department statistics. And when encounters between police and people with mental illnesses turn deadly, it’s more often the person with the mental illness killed.

Last year, 138 law enforcement officers died in the line of duty in the U.S., according to the nonprofit Officer Down Memorial Page, Inc. In that same year, a database kept by The Washington Post identified 987 people shot and killed by police. Of that total, mental illness was a factor in the deaths of at least 237 people, the Post found.

Four of those 237 deaths the Post tracked last year took place in Louisiana, including Preston’s.

Red River Parish Sheriff’s deputy Anthony Matteson had just started his shift at 6 a.m. on Aug. 2, 2017, when a dispatcher alerted him of a call from a veterans crisis center requesting a welfare check at 1218 Banks St.

“Subject’s name is Preston Thornton,” the dispatcher said, according to a recording obtained by NOLA.com ′ The Times-Picayune. The dispatcher said Preston told the VA crisis line he hadn’t been taking his medicine and “needs an intervention.”

“He needs an intervention?” Matteson asked. He later would tell a Louisiana State Police investigator that he didn’t know what the dispatcher meant by the word “intervention,” according to audio of that interview.

As he headed to Preston’s location, Matteson, 46, was not told there was a loaded gun in the house. That important detail never made it from the crisis line to the sheriff’s dispatcher.

Matteson turned on his body-worn camera. Shortly after 6:30 a.m. Natalie, dressed in her nightgown, answered the door. She’s seen on the body-cam footage, a bit surprised — she expected to see a paramedic not a sheriff’s deputy. So, too, did Sydneye, who stayed on the three-way call with Preston and the VA. The VA call taker never told them deputies had been dispatched.

Preston, dressed in dark pants and a white T-shirt, sat in a wooden chair next to the phone in the living room. Matteson spoke briefly with the VA crisis line person, as the morning news played on TV. Matteson looked down at his cellphone; it was 6:38 a.m.

Preston tried to give the phone back to Matteson, who shook his head: “I don’t want to talk to her. I’m good.”

Preston leaned back and looked at Matteson.

“Well, he’s got his weapon drawn,” Preston told the VA call taker.

“I ain’t got no weapon drawn,” Matteson quickly replied.

Preston put the receiver on the table and stood from the chair.

“Where you going?” Matteson asked. “Have a seat sir.” He asked to speak to the VA call taker.

“Ma’am, ain’t nobody got no weapons drawn here.”

Matteson asked Preston’s name and asked what was happening. He told Preston again he didn’t have a weapon drawn, gesturing with his empty hands to further the point.

“I don’t have none either,” Preston said. He had placed a loaded pistol on top of the entertainment center behind him, before Matteson arrived.

“I know you don’t. Tell me what’s going on?” the officer said. “I’m not here to hurt you.”

As their interaction unfolded inside, deputy Chris Sibley arrived at the house. Sibley, 41, knew the Thornton family. He played football at Coushatta High School — now called Red River High — around the same time Preston’s dad coached the team. Sibley started coaching the team not long after Preston’s senior season at the school.

Sibley also knew Shreveport police had been at Preston’s family’s house a week or two earlier, investigating a murder in which Preston was the suspect. Shreveport police said the case remains under investigation, 16 months later.

As Sibley entered the living room, Matteson reached down and tried, unsuccessfully, to disconnect the call with the VA. He would later tell the State Police investigator he thought doing so would calm Preston.

Preston rose to his feet and grabbed for the phone, repeatedly telling Matteson no. He put his hands up near his shoulders. His eyes darted between the two deputies. Preston backed toward the kitchen, glancing back at the top of the entertainment center — where his gun was. Natalie tried telling him to stop. Preston reached for the pistol and fired twice in the direction of the deputies.

In the few seconds of chaos that followed, Sibley dropped instantly, floored by a leg wound. Matteson fell to his side and returned fire.

“I just started shooting into the kitchen,” he later told State Police. “I just kept shooting until I thought it was safe to get out of there.”

Six bullets struck Preston. He ran through a bedroom and out the front door, leaving behind his sandal and a trail of blood. Other deputies responding to the scene found him lying on the street about 150 feet from the house.

Still on the three-way phone call, the VA call taker and Preston’s sister heard the entire shooting unfold.

Paramedics arrived and attended to Sibley’s leg wound. By the time they got to Preston, he had been bleeding on the street for at least 10 minutes. It’s unclear what, if any, treatment he received before he was placed in an ambulance.

At Coushatta hospital, doctors told his family there was nothing they could do.

Veterans Day, three months after Preston’s death, State Police was still investigating the shooting, which local authorities would later deem justified. A couple dozen of Preston’s family and friends stood outside the Red River Parish courthouse in Coushatta, waiting to speak with the town’s mayor. In their hands, they had a letter asking Mayor Johnny Cox and Sheriff Glen Edwards to review sheriff’s office policies and training for mental health crisis calls.

“Something needed to be done,” Sydneye recalled. “There’s no policy. Nobody knew what to do or how to do it. Nobody was trained, and we just wanted to bring awareness to all of that.”

Sixteen months after Preston’s death, the Red River Parish Sheriff’s Office still has not adopted a policy on how officers respond to a mental health crisis call.

“I don’t know that I have a good answer for that,” Sheriff Edwards said when asked why. “I’m in my sixth year as sheriff and one of my goals was to revamp policy. But there’s a whole book of policies and it takes a lot of time to do that . . . that’s just one of the things that is in the works.”

His office is not alone, as evidenced by the results of NOLA.com ′ The Times-Picayune’s reporting on the high number of law enforcement agencies in Louisiana that have not adopted policies and training to guide officers responding to calls involving someone with a mental illness.

“Is it a can’t do or is it a won’t do?” asked Molly Bartlett, a licensed clinical social worker and chief operating officer of Family Services of Greater New Orleans. “It’s not OK for it to be a won’t do. If you’re supposed to be protecting everybody, you need to know how to do that the right way.”

Some police chiefs and sheriffs who responded to the news organization’s records request said they would consider adopting policies after speaking with a reporter. Others said they expect to have policies in place soon, and at least one agency sent a policy that was enacted after the records request was sent.

The lack of a policy does not mean a department’s officers or deputies are not given guidance on how to respond to mental health crisis calls. Across the Red River from Alexandria, the Pineville Police Department does not have a specific policy for engaging people with mental illnesses. But all of its officers are required to complete specialized Crisis Intervention Team training for those encounters.

Started in Memphis, in response to the 1987 officer-involved killing of a 27-year-old man with a mental illness, CIT training has become the gold standard for how police agencies should prepare officers for mental health crisis calls. It’s spread to more than 2,700 communities across the country, including New Orleans.

CIT training programs have been found to improve officer safety, lower arrests of people with mental illnesses and increase the chances those people will receive care, experts say.

The training teaches officers how to rapidly assess a situation: What are the signs of different mental illnesses? What are the effects of typical medications prescribed for those illnesses? Patience and empathy are critical, and most CIT programs include role-playing crisis situations.

There are active CIT training programs at law enforcement agencies in about half of Louisiana’s 64 parishes, as well as four different regional training programs. Some agencies, like NOPD, make CIT available to those who volunteer. The department estimates it’s trained about 40 percent of its patrol officers.

The Red River Parish Sheriff’s Office is among those agencies that do not take part in CIT training programs. Edwards, the sheriff, said he was not overly familiar with the program but was not opposed to making it available to his deputies.

“I’ve gone over it a lot because of that specific situation,” he said of Preston’s death. “I don’t know how much could have been done differently.”

Edwards and others in law enforcement say the challenge comes down to time and resources.

“Most of these small agencies that are two- or three-officer departments, they’re trying to get through 24 hours a day,” said Darrell Basco, deputy chief of the Pineville Police Department and president of Louisiana’s Fraternal Order of Police. “I think it’s a lack of education on the administrative side — that if you do this, here’s the value.”

The bullet hole is still visible in the window next to the front door at 1218 Banks St. this day in October. There’s another one in the dining chair by the kitchen, and two more in the wall by the air conditioning unit.

Before Preston’s grandfather died in June of this year, he talked about selling the house, or tearing it down and rebuilding. “It’s depressing,” he told his family.

But that house holds more memories than the ones the family wants to forget. It’s where Preston’s grandmother fed the community from her garden, and where everyone gathered for holidays and celebrations. So, Preston’s aunt says she’ll make repairs and try to go on as best she can.

They all try to go on as best they can.

Campbell, Preston’s Army buddy, channels his grief into his studies at the University of Miami’s law school, with the goal of working in the criminal justice system.

“It was just a lot of failures, from the VA to the local police officers to the responding EMTs,” he says of Preston’s death. “There were just numerous decisions made that prevented him from being alive.”

Natalie’s own mental health has rapidly declined in the 16 months since her son was killed. She can recall every detail of that morning, but almost nothing from any point before that. She forgets he’s dead, at times, and tries to call him on the phone.

“I lost my mind when Preston died,” she says.

She now lives with Sydneye in Natchitoches, where the two care for Preston’s dog Bobo, a pit bull mix he adopted as a puppy a few months before the shooting. They went everywhere together, Sydneye says, which is why Bobo is so good on car rides.

As for Sydneye, she tries to stifle the anger she feels for the people she blames for her brother’s death. She styles hair for family and friends at her apartment, and still goes to the high school on Friday nights for the football game.

That’s where she was one Friday in late October, smiling and greeting seemingly everyone she passed on the stands. All the while, she kept an eye on the sideline, where deputy Sibley paced as one of the team’s coaches. He spent nearly a year of rehabilitation from his wound before returning to duty. His colleague Matteson has had a difficult time coping with the shooting, the sheriff says. “It’s been tough for all of us,” Edwards says.

Sydneye graduates from cosmetology school on Dec. 20 of this year. She wants to be an instructor and travel the world, giving people “some Louisiana flavor.” She’s expecting her first child in March, a boy, due a few days after what would have been Preston’s 31st birthday.

She’s already picked out a name.

___

Information from: The Times-Picayune, http://www.nola.com

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