LAND O'LAKES — Thomas Scimone had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder a decade before he was killed. On Nov. 20, 2010, his sister said, Scimone stood in front of seven police officers in Suffolk County, N.Y., holding a single-shot antique rifle, unloaded. He was gunned down in the street with 42 shots.
His family took him off life support on Thanksgiving Day.
Pat Scimone-Almasy wonders if her brother's death could have been prevented with better education and resources. Now, she tells her brother's story during the National Alliance on Mental Illness' Crisis Prevention Training, a 40-hour program in which law enforcement officers learn how to respond to situations involving a person with mental illness.
On Tuesday, the Pasco County Sheriff's Office announced many of its deputies will undergo their first training in April at NAMI's new office on Land O'Lakes Boulevard. There, deputies will learn to defuse confusing, intense scenarios, where quick decisions are made and civilians and officers have both been killed in fire. The Sheriff's Office is looking to put 25 to 33 percent of its deputies through the training.
"This training helps our deputies differentiate between mental health problems and developmental disabilities and identify various symptoms of mental illnesses," the Sheriff's Office said in a prepared release. "We hope this will help lessen injuries to those suffering from mental illness."
Tuesday was also the opening of the first NAMI office in Pasco, at 6480 Land O'Lakes Blvd. The office, run by NAMI volunteers, will work as a free referral service for patients to find mental health treatment in the county, before they run into trouble with law enforcement.
Sheriff Chris Nocco stood in the front of the office at the open house and addressed about 50 NAMI members and supporters.
"How do we help those people?" he asked. "Unfortunately, our jail is not the solution. The solution is to help those people out. That's what we're here to talk about."
A survey by the Treatment/Recovery Information and Advocacy Database shows that 44 percent of people with mental illness have been to jail in their lives. An investigation by the Portland Press Herald found that of the 375 to 500 people shot in the United States every year by law enforcement officers, "at least half" have mental illness.
In Miami-Dade County, Criminal Court Judge Steven Leifman, a champion of mental health advocacy, helped divert $20 million intended for a new jail and used it to rehabilitate mentally ill criminals back into the population, according to a January story in the Miami Herald.
At the open house Tuesday, Lt. Larry Engle, who leads the crisis intervention training in Pasco, quoted the story when he spoke to the crowd.
"There's almost not a social ill that doesn't overlap with mental illness," he said.
Scimone-Almasy thought back on her brother Thomas, and how things may have changed if the officers in Suffolk County had been in NAMI training.
"What if they had just asked him a question?" she said. "'How can I help?'"
Contact Alex Orlando at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.