ST. PETERSBURG — Police made numerous mistakes leading up to an Aug. 7 incident that saw an officer shoot and kill a 55-year-old man with a documented history of mental illness, an investigation found.
The two St. Petersburg police officers sent to the apartment of Jeffrey Haarsma knew he had mental health issues but did not take that history into consideration in handling the situation. That’s the conclusion made by Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who wrote a report summarizing the investigation by the newly formed Pinellas County Use of Deadly Force Investigative Task Force.
“The criminal matter that the officers investigated ... was a symptom of Haarsma’s mental and behavioral health issues,” Gualtieri wrote. “While the officers were attempting to solve the problem that residents were having with Haarsma, the more prudent approach would have been to handle the matter as a mental health call.”
Authorities say Officer Alison Savarese shot and killed Haarsma after he began choking her — an act of self-defense the task force and a prosecutor’s report both determined was justified under the law.
But the task force report lays out all the missteps and miscommunications by the St. Petersburg Police Department that led to that fatal encounter. Police Chief Anthony Holloway on Wednesday acknowledged those issues and vowed to address them.
“The report was thorough, it was fair, and we need to look at those things," Holloway said.
A “contributing factor” to the shooting, the sheriff wrote, was that Savarese tried to detain Haarsma on her own — even after a dispatcher had told her about his mental health issues and warned her to take precautions.
Whether Savarese had the legal grounds to detain Haarsma on a criminal charge was “arguable,” Gualtieri wrote.
After reviewing the report, Debra Haarsma reiterated that police officers failed to take into account her brother’s history, allowing the situation to escalate.
“If the police had been trained appropriately my brother would still be alive," she told the Tampa Bay Times.
Police had encountered Haarsma many times before, the report says. There were eight calls involving Haarsma in 2017, five in 2019 and 12 so far this year.
His relationships with neighbors at the French Quarter North Condominiums had grown increasingly tense, the report says. One of the 2017 complaints was from his psychologist, who told police Haarsma rambled on the phone about neighbors spying on him. He fought officers when they took him into custody under the Baker Act, a law that allows for the involuntary commitment of someone believed to be a risk to themselves or others.
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On Aug. 6, the day before the shooting, a resident called police to report that Haarsma had sent a threatening email to one of his neighbors. Three officers were sent to investigate. Haarsma was combative and was especially aggressive toward the lone female officer, according to the task force report. But the officers didn’t write a report about their encounter.
The next day, the task force report said the same neighbor Haarsma threatened via email called police to report that he’d thrown her outdoor furniture in the trash. But due to limitations with the police dispatch system, the report said the notes the responding officers received “did not indicate any kind of officer safety issue.”
Savarese and the lead officer on the call, Kristen Thomas, arrived together about 7:40 p.m. The neighbor told the officers of her past issues with Haarsma and said he needed to go to a mental health facility, according to the report. But Haarsma didn’t respond to the officers at his door.
Thomas “felt something needed to be done or the situation may escalate with neighbors,” according to a summary of her interview with task force investigators.
“There is no indication that the officers discussed or contemplated ... handling the matter as a mental health call rather than a criminal matter,” Gualtieri wrote.
Instead, Thomas started a criminal investigation for petty theft, a misdemeanor. However, the report says, because the neighbor didn’t witness the theft, the officers wouldn’t have been able to arrest Haarsma, so that wouldn’t resolve the situation with neighbors.
Thomas went back to police headquarters to work on the investigation. She researched police records detailing past interactions with Haarsma — but was missing crucial information about Haarsma’s actions the day before because those officers didn’t document it.
Savarese stayed at the apartment complex. Then Haarsma left his unit. Thomas told her to detain Haarsma so they could talk to him, though the task force report says it was “arguable” whether they had a legal basis to do so.
“It would have been a better course of action for Officer Savarese to have waited for back-up before attempting to detain Haarsma,” the report says, “and an even better course of action would have been for Officer Savarese to not have been left alone at the scene.”
Holloway said the actions taken by all the officers on Aug. 6 and Aug. 7 are the subject of an internal investigation.
In the meantime, the chief said he ordered changes to the dispatch system to better communicate past issues at an address, has required sergeants be informed of calls involving mental health issues, and wants to ensure all officers receive Crisis Intervention Training to better prepare them to deal with a mental health crisis.
“We will be looking at: Where did we drop the ball?" Holloway said. “And what can we do to make sure this doesn’t happen again?”
Haarsma’s death took place as the Black Lives Matter protests against racial injustice and police brutality changed the way Pinellas law enforcement operates.
This is the Pinellas County Use of Deadly Force Investigative Task Force’s first report. The county’s law enforcement agencies banded together in July to conduct outside investigations of officers’ use of force. For decades, those agencies investigated their own officers.
Later this year, St. Petersburg plans to launch the Community Assistance Liaison program, where social services workers and paramedics will be sent to handle certain non-violent police calls, including mental health issues, instead of officers.