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‘It shouldn’t have ended this way.’ Friends, family question St. Pete police shooting of mentally ill man

Records show police should have known that Jeffrey Haarsma had a history of mental health issues. A lone St. Petersburg police officer shot the 55-year-old who choked her when she tried to handcuff him.

ST. PETERSBURG — Jeffrey Haarsma’s mental health issues were well known to the St. Petersburg Police Department.

Officers had been to his home at least six times in the past three years with several calls coded as “Mental Person.” On one visit in March 2017, two officers struggled to restrain the 55-year-old whose therapist wanted him committed to a psychiatric hospital. They used a Taser on Haarsma twice before they could shackle his wrists and ankles.

As recently as March, Officer Kristen Thomas went to Haarsma’s home at the French Quarter North Condominiums on Fourth Street N after he called police to report “suspicious” prescription medication he took from a neighbor’s patio table.

Thomas returned to Haarsma’s home Aug. 7 at about 7:30 p.m., accompanied by Officer Alison Savarese. A neighbor had reported that Haarsma threw her patio chairs into a dumpster.

But Savarese was alone when she found Haarsma outside his home about 90 minutes later. Investigators said he fought with her and tried to choke her when she tried to handcuff him. Haarsma’s hand was still around her neck when the officer drew her firearm and shot him twice, killing him, according to Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.

A week after his death, Debra Haarsma is still haunted by the belief that her younger brother should still be alive.

The officers should have known about his mental health issues, she said, and one officer shouldn’t have tried to detain him on their own. A second officer may have deterred her brother from fighting, she said, or at least helped subdue him without having to use deadly force.

“I cannot believe my brother is laying in the morgue right now,” said Debra Haarsma, 60. “Why was this handled so badly? Somebody needs to be held accountable for this screw up.”

Related: Neighbors feared him. Then he was shot, killed while choking a St. Pete officer, sheriff says

• • •

Law enforcement officials have not discussed the Aug. 7 shooting or revealed new details since Gualtieri’s news conference afterward. The officer’s decision to use deadly force is the subject of two different investigations.

One will be conducted by the new Pinellas County Use of Deadly Force Investigative Task Force. The county’s law enforcement leaders announced the new initiative in July, agreeing to allow other law enforcement agencies to investigate their own officers in cases that ended in serious injury or death.

The policy change was made in response to the Black Lives Matter protests and growing calls around the country for more police accountability and transparency following the death of George Floyd, who was killed May 25 by a Minneapolis police officer.

The Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s Office will also conduct its own investigation into the death. In the meantime Savarese has been placed on administrative leave, which is routine in shooting incidents.

St. Petersburg police spokeswoman Yolanda Fernandez said the police department cannot comment on the case because it is being investigated by an outside agency.

Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Travis Sibley said the task force investigation will provide more information about what happened but cautioned against “Monday morning quarterbacking” until all the details in the case are known.

“He came at her in an aggressive manner,” Sibley said.

The lack of new information leaves several questions unanswered for now: Why did Savarese attempt to detain Haarsma by herself? How much of his history was she aware of? Why did the second officer leave the scene?

Former Boca Raton Police Chief Andrew Scott, who worked in law enforcement for 30 years, said the two officers should have known about Haarsma’s mental history. They had access to the details of previous police encounters with him from the department’s computer-aided dispatch system.

The initial decision to dispatch two officers made sense, he said.

“Police officers never know when a normal situation is going to go bad,” Scott said. “It’s better to always have a second officer on the scene dealing with people who have mental health issues. You alleviate escalation.”

• • •

Encounters between the mentally ill and law enforcement can often end tragically, records show.

Nearly a quarter of people killed by law enforcement officers in the past five years suffered from mental illness, according to a Washington Post report. The Tampa Bay Times’ 2017 “Why Cops Shoot” investigation found that 246 out of 827 people shot by Florida law enforcement agencies over a five year period through 2014 showed signs of mental instability.

Unlike in many of those cases, Haarsma was not armed.

He suffered from bipolar disorder with psychotic features and often exhibited paranoia, said his therapist Nancy Silva, who had been working with Haarsma for close to nine years. She was given permission to talk to the Tampa Bay Times by his sister. He was also recovering from an addiction to meth amphetamine, the therapist said.

Silva often treated Haarsma pro bono, but he hadn’t asked for a session since November. She said she last spoke to him by phone in January.

She had never known him to attack anybody and had included him in group sessions with other patients. But she said he was a stickler for condo rules and could get angry and often riled his neighbors.

“Unfortunately not all mental illness is the kind that makes people feel sympathetic, but he was never violent,” she said.

Haarsma’s encounters with the police had left him wary of them, she said. But he was always easy to calm down.

“He probably needed to be hospitalized or have his meds restarted or adjusted,” she said. “It shouldn’t have ended this way.”

• • •

When the sheriff spoke to the media after the shooting, he did not say whether mental health was a factor. He said Thomas, the second officer, had returned to police headquarters “as part of the investigation” but did not elaborate further.

The sheriff said Savarese told Haarsma he was going to be detained as part of a criminal investigation and to put his hands behind his back. Then Haarsma pushed her and the two fought, Gualtieri said.

Savarese had marks on her neck from where Haarsma grabbed her and his hand was still there when she shot him, Gualtieri said. He described Haarsma as being about 6 feet tall and “much bigger” than Savarese.

“This is a response to someone attacking her,” the sheriff said. “Her life was in danger because she couldn’t breathe and because he decided he was going to choke her out.”

The Florida Mental Health Act — more commonly known as the Baker Act — gives police the authority to take a person whose mental state may make them a risk to themselves or others into custody and transport them to a facility where they can be evaluated.

Haarsma was committed under the Baker Act in 2017 at the recommendation of Silva, his therapist.

St. Petersburg police procedures stress that officers dealing with mentally ill individuals “should use the least restrictive mode of transportation and restraints available and strive to maintain the individual’s personal dignity.” They are required to use restraints when transporting them to either jail or an evaluation facility.

City and police leaders recently announced that in the fall some nonviolent calls to police will be handled by social services workers rather than uniformed officers. That includes reports about people who are intoxicated or have overdosed and those in mental health crises.

Jeffrey "Jeff" Haarsma outside his St. Petersburg condominium.
Jeffrey "Jeff" Haarsma outside his St. Petersburg condominium. [ Debra Haarsma ]

• • •

Haarsma grew up in Barrington, Ill., said Billy Rafferty, a friend for 25 years.

He said his friend was a piano prodigy as a child and, later, earned a business degree. Haarsma double majored in French and was fluent.

Rafferty said his friend was warm and compassionate. He had a gift for growing plants that died in the hands of others and took in and loved rescue cats.

Rafferty admitted Haarsma could be a busybody who got into disputes with his neighbors. But he didn’t recognize his friend in the account given by the sheriff of Haarsma attacking an officer.

“Jeff is not violent,” Rafferty said. “I just can’t wrap my head around it.”

Still, neighbors who spoke to the Times said Haarsma’s behavior had become increasingly erratic this year. He had removed the “pool closed” signs posted because of the pandemic and fought with a property manager who tried to stop him. He also claimed neighbors had bugged his telephone and were monitoring him.

The French Quarter North Condominium Association in 2016 filed a lien against Haarsma for falling behind on his maintenance payments. He owed about $2,600 and filed for bankruptcy in order to be able to stay in his home, said his attorney Matt Weidner.

“He was a guy who deserved our help,” Weidner said.

Haarsma had been on disability because of his mental illness but was ambitious enough to put himself through college to qualify as a licensed practical nurse, said Debra Haarsma.

He loved sending his sister goofy gifts like a ceramic fish and an inflatable giraffe, she said.

“He was just a person that had struggles,” she said. “He was trying to make himself better.”

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