published Tuesday, July 16th, 2013

Law enforcement agencies play blame game in Athens, Tenn., shooting

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Athens, Tenn., police say an officer did his job when he told a local jailer that Robert Marshall needed a mental evaluation after he was found with a pistol and prescription pills in his truck and threatened to kill himself and his wife.

But officers say the McMinn County Sheriff's Office ignored the request.

The police department and the sheriff's office are blaming each other for not getting Marshall help on Sept. 6, hours before he left jail after paying his own $1,500 bond. He then was shot to death by his wife, Melissa, when he forced himself into their Athens home.

Marshall's family believes that if law enforcement had followed through and gotten him help, their 34-year-old son and brother might still be alive.

"Nobody had to die that day," Marshall's mother Theresa Daniel said. "He would still be alive today if he had been evaluated."

Early on Sept. 6, Marshall was arrested near a Super 8 Motel after he had left his Athens tire shop with his pistol. An employee had dialed 911, warning that Marshall had threatened to kill his wife, who had filed a protective order that Friday banning Marshall from going back home and seeing his two sons.

Athens Officer Corey Fritts arrested Marshall and charged him with misdemeanor drug charges. He wrote in his report that Marshall was "suicidal and homicidal" and needed an evaluation. Daniel said the officer told her that her son would get the help he needed.

But McMinn County Sheriff Joe Guy said the jail didn't get any information from the Athens Police Department on Marshall's mental state until an hour after he had been booked behind bars.

At the jail, Guy was told by his corrections officers that Marshall was calm. When he was questioned about whether he was suicidal or wanted to kill his wife, Marshall responded: "It wasn't worth getting in trouble for," Guy said.

Guy said there was "nothing to indicate there was a mental illness [with Marshall]. The family didn't take him anywhere, the officer didn't take him anywhere."

Tennessee law states an officer can request an immediate examination for a person if the person is making threats or attempts at homicide, suicide or other bodily harm.

That officer can take a person to a mental health facility or ask a person in the medical field such as a member of a crisis intervention team to come to the jail and examine the suspect to see if he or she should be committed or treated for a mental sickness, health experts said.

Athens Detective Heath Willis said the department's policy allows officers to take a person to a hospital only when they see specific evidence that a person is going to harm themselves.

But Michael Rabkin, spokesman for the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, said the law only requires that a person show signs of being a threat to himself or others.

Officers have a lot of leeway determining whether a person needs mental health treatment, he said. That's why law enforcement officers need constant training.

Southeast Tennessee law enforcement have an opportunity to get 40 hours of mental health crisis intervention training through the Hamilton County/Chattanooga Crisis Intervention Team. The training is offered for free through a grant.

DOES JAIL HELP?

Since the joint Hamilton County and Chattanooga crisis intervention team was established in 2009, instructors have trained 150 officers from 21 law enforcement agencies, including a police department in Mississippi, authorities said.

With 40 hours of training officers are taught to recognize behaviors that are indicative of a mental illness, as well as psychotic breakdowns and how to stop a violent situation by talking the person out of rash actions, instructors said.

In many cases officers are able to help mentally ill people avoid jail time and instead get treatment.

"In most cases you can talk them into voluntarily wanting to seek help," said Capt. Charles Lowery Jr., a program instructor. "The jail is not the place for a person who has not committed a crime but is suffering from mental problems. The jail is not going to help them. Our job is to get them into a facility to get them the help."

Officers are still required to arrest a suspect who has committed domestic violence or a violent felony, said sheriff's office Cp. Eliott Mahaffey. But officers can use discretion with misdemeanors and felonies that are nonviolent if a person is acting out and needs mental treatment, he said.

Last year, of the 500 suspects crisis intervention team officers responded to in the county or city, officers only arrested 17 on criminal charges, annual reporting records show. There were 324 people transported for mental health evaluations, and 135 people stabilized with no further action taken.

Guy said his officers also are trained how to identify suspects showing signs of mental illness. Marshall never showed a hint of problems while in the county jail, he said.

It wasn't enough for the Athens officer to make the recommendation.

"What the officer says is taken into account, but it's not the deciding factor," Guy said.

How do you know when a person is really suicidal? Rabkin said.

That judgment is best left to medical professionals to determine, he said, but the decision to make initial contact lies with law enforcement.

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at jlukachick@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.

about Joy Lukachick Smith...

Joy Lukachick is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing ...

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