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After fatal shooting by Springfield police, calls for outside probe, more mental health training

A photo of two people, clearly in distress. A microphone is pointed at one person.
Don Treeger
NEPM/The Republican
Earlene Taylor (left), grandmother of Orlando Taylor, and community activist Charles Stokes (right).

After a 23-year-old was killed Sunday by a police officer in Springfield, Massachusetts, family members and activists are demanding better training for how officers deal with people with mental health crises.

Earlene Victoria Taylor said her grandson, Orlando Taylor, had been struggling with paranoia and other mental health problems for years. She said he’d been a good student while he was living with her, but later, as a teenager, his behavior became volatile and his family repeatedly tried to get him mental health treatment.

Just recently, she said Orlando had agreed to seek help on his own.

"He made a promise he was going to go that next day, which would have been Monday,” she said. “We see that didn't happen."

It's not clear exactly what precipitated the final crisis. The police said Orlando Taylor stabbed a police officer in the face and neck shortly before the shooting, which took place around 8:30 Sunday morning.

Earlene Taylor said she remembers running out of her house, in the city's Liberty Heights neighborhood, to see her grandson running down the street

“By that time, he's all the way past my driveway and the cops were in pursuit of him in the street,” Taylor said. “And they had their guns drawn and I started screaming, and I'm like, ‘Don't shoot. He’s got mental health issues.’ I was yelling. I mean, you see somebody running behind your grandchild, got a gun pulled out. I'm pleading for his life.”

According to the police, Orlando Taylor again lunged at officers with a knife in hand, when the injured officer fired twice.

Earlene Taylor said after Orlando fell, police handcuffed him, and then attempted CPR.

The police said this is the first fatal shooting by a Springfield officer since 2014.

At a press conference later that day, Mayor Domenic Sarno said the responding officers showed “a tremendous amount of restraint.” He said he believed the shooting to be justified.

Police Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood offered sympathy for Taylor’s family, as well as the wounded officer, who she said suffered serious but not life-threatening injuries.

The department said Wednesday the officer, whose name has not been released, will undergo "surgery with a facial and nerve specialist in Boston due to what is most likely permanent nerve damage in his face."

The officer and his partner have been placed on paid administrative leave.

"No officer ever wants to be involved in this situation,” Clapprood said Sunday. “But I am so proud of both officers and all the officers who responded, who acted professionally, did as they were trained."

But minister and community activist Charles Stokes, with the organization Black Alliance for Change, said he believes the officers were not trained properly.

Stokes, who's working with the Taylor family, said the killing could have been avoided if Springfield police had been taught how to respond to someone in a mental health crisis. In some police departments, that includes calling in civilian mental health professionals.

"Why did not the officer call the crisis center to get mental health evaluations and people brought to the scene?" Stokes said.

Without specialized training, he said, “when those types of officers come in contact with Black men, with mental health issues, we wind up dead.”

Springfield's police spokesperson did not respond to questions on the department's mental health training.

Bishop Talbert Swan of the Springfield NAACP said he does not have enough information to know whether police should have dealt with Taylor as a mental health call, but he said he does believe the police need better training.

"We need to have some level of confidence that when we have a situation with a person that suffers from mental illness,” Swan said, “that an officer can properly de-escalate the situation as opposed to using deadly force.”

The Hampden District Attorney's office has promised to speak to the family, and conduct a "thorough, fair and transparent" investigation. That includes reviewing body camera footage from the officers, which has not been publicly released.

Several social justice groups in Springfield, including the NAACP, have called for an outside, neutral agency to lead the investigation.

They also condemned the mayor and police commissioner for making their own judgments about the incident so quickly.

“They often ask the public to withhold judgment until all the information is out, until investigations have been completed,” Swan said. “It's hypocritical to ask us to refrain from judging a situation if they're prejudging one when when they're reporting out to the public.”

The district attorney, police and mayor's office did not respond to requests for further comment.

This article was published as a part of the New England News Collaborative.

Karen is a radio and print journalist who focuses on health care, mental health, children’s issues, and other topics about the human condition. She has been a full-time radio reporter since for New England Public Radio since 1998. Her pieces have won a number of national awards, including the National Edward R. Murrow Award, Public Radio News Directors, Inc. (PRNDI) Award, and the Erikson Prize for Mental Health Reporting for her body of work on mental illness.
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