Little Italy Woman Shot By Authorities Was Yale Grad in Mental Health Crisis, Colleagues Say

Yan Li was a graduate of Yale School of Public Health. Former colleagues say she was in the middle of a mental health crisis when she was shot, and they question whether law enforcement did enough to de-escalate the situation

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Editor's note: This story was updated to correctly identify PERT as the Psychiatric Emergency Response Team.

The ex-husband and former colleagues of a Little Italy woman shot and killed by San Diego law enforcement during an eviction say the woman acted irrationally and law enforcement failed to recognize she was in the midst of a mental health crisis.

San Diego police and deputies opened fire on Yan Li, 47, after she charged them with a knife and stabbed an officer. Their first contact with Li that day, March 3, was when deputies served her with an eviction notice at her condo on W. Beech Street.

Li's ex-husband, who did not want to be identified by name, told NBC 7 Li struggled with bipolar disorder and sought psychiatric treatment in San Diego and China after her diagnosis in 2010.

He said she once isolated herself inside her W. Beech Street condo in 2020 with no phone or internet and did not answer her mail or acknowledge family members. The two have a son and they remained close up until 2020.

Li earned her doctorate at the Yale School of Public Health.

After seeing the body camera footage of Li's death released earlier this month, the Dean of the Yale's School of Public Health, Dr. Sten Vermund, and a fellow Yale educator who was also a mentor to Li, were compelled to write an opinion piece for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

The San Diego County Sheriff's Department released video of a fatal shooting that occurred last week in Little Italy.

"These are signs, I think, of an irrational response and a person in considerable crisis," Vermund said recalling the incident. “It is a wake-up call that probably is repeated over and over in our country, but not all the individuals are a Yale PhD bio-statistician that has had a distinguished career in the pharmaceutical industry."

Dr. Vermund said Li worked for pharmaceutical companies testing the efficacy of drugs.

"She was remembered by her Yale colleagues as a very pleasant and hard-working individual. Quite a brilliant mind," he said.

When a San Diego County Sheriff's Department deputy knocked on Li's door to serve her the eviction notice, Li answered the door with a knife in her hand. The deputy pulled his sidearm and Li ignored several of the deputy's commands to drop the knife. She shouted concerns about the deputy being an imposter before she shut her door.

The San Diego Police Department said the Psychiatric Emergency Response Team (PERT) was called to the scene but they hadn't arrived by the time deputies made contact with Li a second time.

Deputies and SDPD officers attempted to communicate with Li through her front door for 45 minutes but couldn’t get her to cooperate, according to investigators.

“I am not second-guessing the police, but when you see this indication of mental confusion, then why not think of it as a mental health concern?" Dr. Vermund said.

Li’s ex-husband said law enforcement failed to recognize Li was having a mental crisis and escalated the situation. Dr. Vermund agreed.

"To respond to her as a mental health professional might is a lost opportunity, and now a loss of life," Dr. Vermund added.

On the day of the shooting, James Dean, a former HOA board member at the complex, told NBC 7 Li suffered emotional and mental disorders, had frequent loud and incoherent outbursts and was well-known to SDPD.

"When I saw the police officers with weapons drawn outside her door, I knew it was going to happen and I'm just so frustrated," Dean said. "I just knew that force wasn't going to be the answer. You have to talk the person down."

Li had threatened a custodial worker at the building the day before the shooting, according to SDPD.

The officer who was stabbed was treated at UC San Diego Medical Center and released. He was wearing a protective vest but was stabbed above it in his upper chest, according to Dobbs.

The shooting is under investigation by SDPD's homicide unit. When the investigation is finished, it will be reviewed by the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office to determine if the officers bear any criminal liability for their actions.

SDPD Chief David Nisleit would not comment on the investigation Tuesday.

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