Mental Illness a Factor in Two Officers-Involved Shootings, DA Says

Two body-worn camera footage released Friday demonstrated just how little time police officers have to make a decision whether to discharge their weapons, San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan said.

In one case, the suspect calmly walked toward officers for three seconds with a knife with officers telling him to drop his weapon before he was shot. The other, the officer was attacked within a second of talking to the suspect.

“When you compare those two side-by-side, you see that it literally split second between an officer being stabbed by that knife and not being stabbed by that knife,” Stephan said.

In the first case, officers shot and killed 24-year-old Kyle Zahacefski of Colchester, Connecticut on Dec. 9, 2017, after he broke into a Sunset Cliffs home and armed himself with a knife.

Residents on Trieste Drive called San Diego Police Department officers that morning to report a man banging on their doors and windows in the Point Loma neighborhood, "demanding a knife so he could kill himself," Lt. Mike Holden said.

When SDPD officers arrived they found Zahacefski in the front yard of an elevated home in the 1200 block of the street. Police said Zahacefski picked up bricks and threw them at officers from above.

Zahacefski then ran toward the home and broke in, police said. Officers followed the Zahacefski, who did not live there, into the home. That was when they saw the suspect in the kitchen with a fixed-blade knife pointed at his throat, Holden said. Zahacefski refused several orders to drop the knife and instead, turned it towards officers.

"The suspect pointed the knife at officers and quickly walked toward them," Holden said.

At that moment, two officers — one armed with a less-lethal beanbag shotgun and the other armed with an AR-15 rifle — fired their weapons at Zahacefski, police said.

Zahacefski was struck by at least one bullet and died at the scene, police said.

“What we’re seeing and what you can see clearly in these cases is mental illness, whether it’s to incite suicide by cop or just mental illness that drives violent behavior, we are seeing that in these incidents,” Stephan said at Friday’s press briefing.

The fact that Zahacefski was asking for a knife to kill himself indicates mental illness, she said.

Zima Creason, the president and CEO of Mental Health California, said she would like to see more mental crisis intervention teams attached to police departments to assist in these situations. She said there should always be a discussion with the crisis prevention team prior to calls such as this one.

“All these calls that these officers are responding to, there should be some kind of level of, ‘What do we do if this really is a mental health crisis so it doesn’t escalate into something else,” she said.

Creason said if a crisis intervention team had been in place, they would have the training and expertise to de-escalate the situation and a life could have been saved. 

Zahacefski was convicted in 2009, when he was 16, of sawing off his hunting shotgun and building a bomb out of fireworks to “kill everyone” at Norwich Technical High School where he went to school, according to The Day, a local newspaper in Connecticut.

He was given to 10 years suspended prison sentence and was released in August 2010 after spending eight months in a state psychiatric facility and two months in prison, according to the paper.

Connecticut police said Zahacefski has a history of suicidal tendency, the paper reported.

Creason said the criminal justice system should not be a substitute to caring for mental illnesses.

“We know that our jails are the biggest mental hospital we have,” she said. “We know that we’re criminalizing mental illness.”

She said individuals such as Zahacefski should have gotten the help he needed so that he was not in crisis to where it led to this outcome.

In the second incident, David Scott, 27, was shot and killed after he charged a Chula Vista police officer and stabbed him multiple times on Sept. 19, 2017.

Scott stabbed the officer multiple times while he was investigating a neighbor dispute on Monterey Avenue, near East J Street. A homeowner reported that Scott had thrown a softball-size chunk of concrete over the fence, which hit him in the shoulder.

In the body-worn camera released Friday, the officer was seen asking Scott’s mother to speak to him. She told the officer that Scott is schizophrenic and was paranoid but “not usually violent.”

The woman then walked into the kitchen calling out for Scott, saying a police officer wanted to talk to him. Scott was heard in the video calmly telling his mother, “All right, that's fine,” then unexpectedly charged and stabbed the officer multiple times.

“The second incident you actually see how fast the distance closes in with that knife and how fast the officer was stabbed five times,” Stephan said.

While mental illness played a factor in these two cases, there was nothing that officers could have done differently, she said.

Stephan said more police agencies are using Psychiatric Emergency Response Team’s assistance, but in Scott’s case, “there is not really time to negotiate or de-escalate or do to anything because of how fast it unfolds.”

Creason said this incident was a tragic one but people with mental health challenges are more like to be victims of violence than to perpetrate violence.

“We hope that this terrible unfortunate incident does perpetuate the stigma that people living with mental health challenges are violent,” she said. “The fact of the matter is that one in four people will experience a mental health challenge at some point in their life.”

The District Attorney’s Office on Friday determined both shootings were justified because the officers were fearful for their lives.

The D.A.’s office also determined the deputy- and officer-involved shooting deaths of Isaias Raziel Ochoa-Bautista and Jeroen Koornwinder justified.

According to police, Ochoa-Bautista, 19, was killed in the shooting that happened Aug. 24, 2017, in the 2100 Block of Rebecca Way in Lemon Grove.

La Mesa police officers saw a gray Ford sedan stopped at a green light with the door open at Fletcher Parkway and Baltimore. When an officer approached the car, he heard some screams and the car drove off, leading to a high-speed pursuit through La Mesa and Spring Valley.

The pursuit ended on Rebecca Way where three suspects got out of the car and took off. Ochoa-Bautista began firing a handgun at law enforcement officers, leading to a shootout.

Ochoa-Bautista, a Spring Valley resident, was killed in the incident.

Koornwinder was killed May 10, 2017, when he drove a pickup truck toward sheriff’s deputies during a pursuit near Barona Casino. Deputies were assisting tribal police who had requested their help to stop a reckless driver who had refused to halt for police. 

This is story was updated to include comments from a mental health expert.

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