An investigation will ultimately determine whether St. Petersburg Officer Damien Schmidt acted appropriately Monday night when he shot and killed an ax-wielding young man on a downtown sidewalk. But the death of Kenneth Robert Sprankle and three other mentally ill people recently killed in confrontations with St. Petersburg police should force a serious discussion in Tallahassee about spending more on mental health services. More treatment on the front end could save lives and taxpayer money.
The police record Sprankle, 27, accumulated in just seven months in Pinellas County is testament to a system that failed to consider a long-term solution for a homeless, mentally ill, nonviolent offender. Sprankle had wrestled with hospital workers, jumped in front of a moving car, dived into a city lake and held his breath, and called 911 repeatedly to warn he was on the verge of suicide or hurting someone. He had been under emergency commitment to psychiatric institutions more than a half-dozen times and became belligerent enough there to warrant additional police intervention. He also damaged property, tried to shoplift a bike and spent time in jail.
It appears Sprankle never hurt anyone, falling short of drawing the serious criminal charges that are all but required in Florida to force the underfunded system to address mental illness more comprehensively. The result was that every time Sprankle was committed under the Baker Act, he was released, once stable, back onto the streets, sometimes drawing police attention again within less than 24 hours. An out-of-town relative told the Tampa Bay Times that Sprankle had been diagnosed as a bipolar schizophrenic and was fine when taking his medication.
Less than a week after the Pinellas Park police had taken him to jail for disorderly conduct, Sprankle wielded a stolen firefighter's ax in downtown St. Petersburg, threatening pedestrians and eventually crossing paths with Schmidt.
Sprankle was the fourth mentally ill person killed this year by a St. Petersburg police officer. The situations vary widely, but they all point to Florida's shortcomings in providing treatment for the mentally ill. Thankfully, the days are long gone when the severely mentally ill were indiscriminately locked away. And new technologies have allowed many to thrive in the community.
Yet Florida allows few mentally ill patients a chance for such success. The last comparison available, for fiscal year 2010, showed Florida spent less per capita on mental health services — $39.55 — than all but two other states, meaning fewer caseworkers and significantly fewer treatment options for those who need it.
But being cheap doesn't save lives or, probably, money. Over the last seven months, three law enforcement agencies and four mental health facilities spent thousands of dollars in crisis intervention on Sprankle but failed to provide meaningful and lasting intervention. For all his encounters with the system, Sprankle fell through the cracks again and again until Monday, when a police officer decided he had no choice but to shoot him. There has to be a better way.