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How Do N.H. Police Decide To Shoot - Or Not Shoot - When Facing Armed, Ill, Or Addicted People?

Via YouTube
Pelham police released dashcam footage of their March 29th arrest of Christopher Lanzillo.

When police in New Hampshire use deadly force, it’s most likely on someone who is armed, intoxicated and often severely mentally ill. That’s according to an NHPR review of police shootings in the state over nearly two decades.

So how do police make a decision to shoot or not shoot when they know the person they’re pointing a gun at is suicidal, psychotic or intoxicated?

On March 29th, Pelham police responded to a call about a man fighting with his family. As a police cruiser pulls up to the scene, dashboard camera video shows Christopher Lanzillo in the street. There’s snow on the ground. Lanzillo is broad-shouldered with no shirt on. He’s holding a knife.

A police officer is heard yelling, "Drop the knife. Put the knife down."

Family members are just up the driveway. Children are leaving school up the road. Lanzillo is drunk.

Video: Watch dashcam footage of Lanzillo's arrest. (Warning: Contains offensive language)

Officer Brian Kelly, the first cop on scene and the one heard telling Lanzillo to drop the knife, says what makes the scenario even more dangerous is what Lanzillo was shouting at police."

"What he said several times to me was, shoot me, I’m begging you to shoot me, please shoot me. All that tells me is he’s in a pretty desperate situation in his own mind. He’s feeling like there’s no other options that he has so it sounds to me like he’s not gonna give us any options."

So this type of scene…an armed man who’s intoxicated and in a desperate mental state. This plays out year after year in New Hampshire.

Jeff Strelzin, chief of the Homicide Unit at the N.H. Department of Justice, says these moments are often the result of years of trauma, family breakdown and unchecked mental illness. But cops don’t always know those stories when they arrive on scene. The best police can do is train for an inevitable encounter with a person who isn’t behaving rationally.

"In these situations it’s become the absolute worst. So it’s reached a terrible end point. Meaning that these officers are way downstream of this problem.

According to records reviewed by NHPR, drugs and mental illness play an out-sized role in police shootings in New Hampshire.

Over the past two decades, law enforcement used deadly force 46 times. A little less than half of these incidents were fatal. Mental illness played a role in about a third of the cases. And more than half of the victims were intoxicated -- alcohol, crack, opioids.

Most of the victims were armed. (Story continues after the graphic.)

Credit Sara Plourde for NHPR

Training for the worst day of someone's life

New Hampshire police are trained to look for small moments that indicate a situation could escalate and become violent.

On the street in Pelham, Lanzillo paces back and forth towards his family, then toward police. One moment he’s screaming, the next he’s crying. Officer Kelly is looking to calm things down.

"I can think of one moment when I tried to deescalate the situation," Kelly says, "Just ask him his name. It just kind of opens that dialogue between us and maybe he’ll feel a little more comfortable with us."

On the video, Kelly can be heard doing just that, asking a family member, "What's his name?"

"Chris." The voice comes from outside the camera's view.

"Chris. Chris, do me a favor and drop the knife," Kelly says then.

'We tell the recruits all the time, we say you will never rise to the occasion. You are going to default to whatever your highest level of training is.'

Within a minute or so, three more cops show up. One takes out a taser, a less lethal option if things escalate. Eventually, Lanzillo throws the knife to the ground.

"Get down on your knees. Get on your knees."

Lanzillo was taken into custody with no shots fired, no one injured. That’s a pretty good outcome. And Pelham police insist that was because of their training.

Part of that training happens in Concord at the state’s Criminal Justice Training Facility.

Lieutenant Justin Paquette is in a small room with walls made of movie screens. He’s talking to a woman on one of those screens, and she’s talking back, making threatening statements, refusing to show her hands.

"You think you’re so tough?"

Paquette replies, "No I don’t think I’m so tough."

"Do something about it. You think I’m scared?"

"You’re under arrest."

Paquette shoots the woman with a taser.

This 360-degree simulator is one part of the training all New Hampshire cadets and many active police officers get. They also speak to mental health experts and family of people with mental illness.

Paquette says this little room actually simulates the physiological responses a cop will go through under real stress in the field.

"You get auditory exclusion where you won’t be able to hear too well. And you’ll get tunnel vision. We tell the recruits all the time, we say you will never rise to the occasion. You are going to default to whatever your highest level of training is."

360 Video: Click and drag the video for a 360 view of Paquette in the simulator

When there's no other option

The highest level of training teaches police that if their efforts to defuse a situation fail, they should shoot if they believe they themselves could be killed.

A few years ago, that’s where Hillsboro Sergeant Mark Philibert found himself. Philibert says one 911 call changed how he thought about his role has a small-town cop.

"I wanted to be the cop in town who plays a little basketball here and there with the kids and…never in my head did I think I was gonna be the police officer that showed up to a house on somebody’s worst day ever."

That day was May 19, 2011. It was just past midnight when Philibert and a number of other police showed up at a log cabin on a rural road. It was pouring rain. According to a later investigation into the incident, a woman inside had been misusing prescription drugs. She had guns and had threatened to kill herself and her stepson.

'But this one round in my community...that just like shattered everything I thought my law enforcement career would be. And then feel like you ruined a family.'

When shots rang out in the house, Philibert was the first through the front door. He says his training instructed him to speak loudly and clearly to the family, to check corners for threats. 

And he says that training dictated how he responded when he saw 47-year-old Shelly Naroian.

"So she was raising a large revolver at me. I raised my pistol up and shouted a few times for her to drop it but she continued to raise it up and the barrel was pointed at my chest. So I fired one round. Her arms went down. She went limp."

Philibert shot Shelley Naroian in the neck, killing her. The gun she had pointed at him was not loaded.

That was five years ago, but Philibert says the memory still pops up all the time, like when he smells something that reminds him of the log cabin, or on a night when the rain is pouring down.

In Philibert’s 15 years on the Hillsboro police force, the bullet that killed Shelley Naroian was the only shot he’s fired. But he has fired many more shots in the line of duty – he’s done two tours in Afghanistan with the National Guard.

"Hundreds of rounds in war I don’t even think about. But this one round in my community – I say it’s my community, I went to high school here, I love this town – that just like shattered everything I thought my law enforcement career would be. And then feel like you ruined a family."

That’s a feeling police training did not prepare him for.

Before joining NHPR in August 2014, Jack was a freelance writer and radio reporter. His work aired on NPR, BBC, Marketplace and 99% Invisible, and he wrote for the Christian Science Monitor and Northern Woodlands.
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