“The contract at the heart of our community is founded on trust”…

Southwest Florida allies join Immokalee residents in calling for justice for Nicolas Morales at a vigil held earlier this month in Immokalee.

Sheriff Rambosk’s words, actions erode the trust essential to effective policing in Immokalee;

The time to rebuild public trust, and reform policing in Immokalee’s farmworker community, is now.

In 1987, police officers in Memphis, Tennessee, responding to a call of a man threatening people with a knife, shot a young Black man to death.  The victim had a history of mental illness, and his tragic and preventable killing shocked the community and threatened to fracture the city in protest.  But instead of provoking the familiar spiral of conflict and division, the young man’s death prompted the Mayor of Memphis to convene a broad-based community coalition to address the crisis.  The mayor brought together “local advocates from the National Alliance On Mental Illness (NAMI) … police, community mental health professionals, university leaders, hospital administrators, and church officials to seek a new approach to working with persons with mental illness in crisis,” and that coalition gave birth to the “Memphis Model,” a model replicated today in cities around the country and credited with saving countless lives that might have otherwise been needlessly lost to police violence.  The model is an all-too-rare reason for hope in the still painfully unfinished struggle against police abuse in Black and Brown, poor and marginalized, communities.  

The history of the Memphis Model and its approach to crisis intervention hold many lessons for police and communities alike: that police are not infallible, and the honest recognition of mistakes is the first step toward re-building trust and reform; that collaboration must take priority over conflict for successful resolution to be possible; that de-escalation must always be a priority, both in training and in practice; and that people experiencing mental health crises should not be treated as threats to be put down, but as fellow citizens to be supported in their time of need. 

Lost in translation: The lessons of Memphis as applied in Immokalee…

Last month, following the release of dash-cam footage by the Collier County Sheriff’s Office of the fatal shooting and mauling of Nicolas Morales, we wrote about the Memphis Model and its place in Collier County Sheriff Kevin Rambosk’s approach to policing, as expressed in the sheriff’s own words:

In the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, Collier County Sheriff Kevin Rambosk told concerned citizens and Collier County Commissioners that his department had made dealing effectively with residents with mental health issues a priority, including securing training for CCSO personnel in a widely-respected crisis management approach known as the “Memphis Model.”  From the Naples Daily News:

… Rambosk said the Sheriff’s Office has trained personnel to help those in crisis and get them to a location that can help them.

“We are one of the only law enforcement agencies that have this many trained, 40-hour Memphis Model (Crisis Intervention Team) trained, law enforcement officers,” he told commissioners… read more

In that same post, we included a link to a podcast, released last year by the CCSO, in which Sheriff Rambosk explains in significant detail the importance of the Memphis Model for training officers how to recognize the signs of a mental health crisis and to de-escalate situations where mental health is an issue, and why he made it a mandatory training for all road and jail deputies.  Here is a three-minute excerpt from that podcast, which is worth listening to again:

Given the CCSO’s very public embrace of the Memphis Model, it is only fair to ask: Six months after Nicolas Morales’s brutal killing at the hands of CCSO deputies, how has Sheriff Rambosk handled his administration’s version of the Memphis Police Department’s formative crisis?  And how does his handling of Nicolas Morales’s death hold up in light of the lessons of the Memphis Model in which he claims to believe?

Sadly, at this point in the process, the conclusion is unavoidable: If the Memphis Model is the measure, Collier County has come up woefully short.  

Southwest Florida faith leaders speak at the vigil calling for justice for Nicolas Morales in Immokalee earlier this month.

As we already documented in detail just days after Nicolas’s shooting by Corporal Pierre Jean, the CCSO’s initial response to the killing was defensive and marred by conflicting public statements.  The CCSO’s refusal to release the dash-cam video of Nicolas’s shooting and mauling by a police K-9 for five nearly months following his death only deepened the community’s growing distrust of the investigation.  From the very first days of the crisis, the CCSO chose to circle the wagons around the officers in question and shroud the investigative process in silence, rather than engage the community in an open, honest examination of a clearly questionable series of events that ended in a brutal death.  Indeed, rather than recognize the deputies’ obvious missteps and seek to defuse the crisis through dialogue — clear lessons learned from the experience in Memphis 34 years ago — the Sheriff’s office chose a course of action that only deepened the divide between the CCSO and the community it is sworn to protect. 

Sheriff Rambosk’s latest statement on Nicolas’s shooting only provides further evidence that the lessons of Memphis have been lost on the CCSO.   During February’s press conference at the CIW community center in Immokalee, the CIW’s Lupe Gonzalo outlined the community’s three principal demands, designed to resolve the crisis sparked by Nicolas’s killing and reform CCSO policies so that the needless loss of life might be prevented in the future:

1. Launch a federal investigation into Nicolas’s shooting by Corporal Pierre Jean and mauling by a police K-9.

2. Form and implement effective, accessible Crisis Response Teams, pairing police and mental health professionals, to respond to calls in Immokalee where mental health is a potential issue.  

3. Break down the walls between the CCSO and the Immokalee community through aggressive transparency and genuine community participation by establishing an Immokalee-specific Citizens’ Review Panel with meaningful powers. 

In a response to the press conference, the Sheriff told the Naples Daily News:

“We have a Mental Health Unit, our deputies undergo CIT training and we have a citizen’s review panel that is representative of all Collier County. We will also continue our significant and longstanding community outreach in Immokalee. We understand that the attorney of the family has indicated he is preparing a lawsuit and therefore it would not be appropriate to comment further at this time.”

On every level — except the most superficial — Sheriff Rambosk’s statement is the antithesis of the model he professes to embrace, not to mention entirely unresponsive to the CIW’s actual demands of the CCSO.

Yes, the statement alludes to elements of the Memphis Model: mental health teams, CIT (de-escalation) training, and community outreach.  But what the Sheriff fails to acknowledge is just how glaringly absent two of those key elements — a mental health team and de-escalation training — are, in fact, from the dash-cam video of Nicolas’s shooting released last month; how instrumental their absence was in Nicolas’s preventable death; and how painfully powerless and unrepresentative of Immokalee is the third — the CCSO’s Citizen Review Panel.  In fact, it is the sum of those three omissions, the disingenuousness of the statement as a whole, that is perhaps the statement’s greatest betrayal of the Memphis Model, which relies on open and honest dialogue between police and community to activate its essential elements and drive change. 

Here again, for reference, is the video (and, again, we warn you that the cruelty and violence, the casual disregard for human life, captured by the unblinking dash-cam are deeply disturbing):

Mental Health Crisis Response Teams

Let’s take each element, one by one.  The community of Immokalee has called for the creation of Mental Health Crisis Response Teams, teams that include mental health professionals to respond, in tandem with law enforcement, on calls where a mental health crisis is suspected.  Despite the Sheriff’s statement that “we have a Mental Health Unit,” there is no Mental Health Crisis Response Team in the video because the CCSO has not implemented that mobile, ride-along approach.  In fact, the Collier County Mental Health and Substance Abuse Draft Strategic Plan for 2018-2021, specifically notes the distinction between the Mental Health Unit mentioned by the Sheriff and the kind of Crisis Response Team called for by the CIW, stating:

“A mobile crisis team or mobile crisis response service is a nonresidential crisis service attached to a public receiving facility and available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, through which immediate intensive assessments and interventions are provided, including screening for admission into a receiving facility. David Lawrence Center as the county’s only public receiving facility does not currently offer this service–which can be quite costly due to the need for 24/7 clinical staff availability for off-site screenings. The Mental Health Intervention Team operated by CCSO is not a mobile crisis team.” (emphasis added).

Nicolas Morales was experiencing a mental health crisis on the night he was killed by Collier County Deputies.  There were indications of erratic behavior on the 911 call.  His appearance and behavior when the deputies arrived on the scene clearly indicated the possibility that he was experiencing a mental health crisis.  The presence of trained mental health professional that night could have saved Nicolas’s life, and saved Nicolas Jr. from life as an orphan.  The Sheriff’s mention of the CCSO’s Mental Health Team in this context is, quite frankly, not relevant.

De-escalation Training

The Sheriff’s statement regarding the deputies’ CIT, or de-escalation, training is equally irrelevant in the context of the video.  As we discussed in our earlier, step-by-step analysis of the video, de-escalation training emphasizes:

… the use of techniques intended to reduce tension, instructing officers to: “Maintain safe distance… Use relaxed, well-balanced, non-threatening posture… Present self as a calming influence… Be aware that uniforms/tools can be intimidating.”  It encourages officers to “use empathy and consider, ‘What if this person in crisis were a member of my family?’”

The approach follows a simple logic: When confronted with an individual potentially experiencing a mental health crisis, “If you take a LESS authoritative, LESS controlling, LESS confrontational approach, you actually will have MORE control.” (emphasis in the original)

From the moment he arrives on the scene, pulls his gun, yells his instructions in English, and closes in on Nicolas, cornering him before killing him with three shots to the torso, all within 12 seconds — not once retreating  — Nicolas’s killer, Cpl. Pierre Jean, fails to demonstrate a single recognizable element of de-escalation training.  Like the absent Crisis Response Team, de-escalation techniques could have saved Nicolas’s life that night.  The Sheriff’s mention of the deputies’ CIT training in his statement to the Naples Daily News is only relevant in underscoring the utter absence of that training in the dash-cam video. 

Citizen Review Panel

Finally, that leaves the Citizen Review Panel, which the Sheriff claims to be “representative of all Collier County.”  

According to census data, Naples residents are 94% white, and Naples has a median age of 61 and a median household income of $71,500.  In contrast, white people comprise only 3% of the residents of Immokalee, the majority of whom are Latino and Black. The median age of Immokalee residents is 25 and the median household income is $24,300.  English is the dominant language in Naples; in Immokalee, Spanish is the language most widely spoken.  Immokalee and Naples are very different communities with different needs and concerns when it comes to policing. 

According to the CCSO policy governing the Citizen Review Panel, its purpose is to promote improved communication between the CCSO and the community, to increase public confidence and trust.  Specifically, the CRP reviews closed use of force investigations, and advises the CCSO on use of force policies that “could create enforcement or accountability problems.”  The policy requires that the CRP represent a “cross section” of Collier County in terms of gender, ethnicity and age, but gives the Sheriff sole power to select the CRP members.  In its current composition, the CRP appears to have no Latino members, and its meetings are held in Naples and in English, with effectively zero participation or representation by poor and marginalized Immokalee residents, whose voices are crucial to increasing public trust in law enforcement.  

“The contract at the heart of our community is founded on trust”…

In the days following the brutal killing of Nicolas Morales last September at the hands of Collier County Sheriff’s deputies, the CIW released a public statement, which read in part:

As members of a society, we know and understand that we must cede some of our personal freedoms so that we can all live free, and safe from harm.  It is the social contract that holds us together as one community, living in peace.  We endow the police with awesome powers — the power to use force, and sometimes use lethal force — to protect us from those who would threaten the peace.  When it works, it works almost invisibly, operating largely in the background.  But more and more today it isn’t working as intended.  Our contract with the police is breaking down, the force we entrust them with used without justification, its victims disproportionately people of color.  And when the police kill people without justification, they become yet one more threat to our collective peace.

The statement continued: “The contract at the heart of our community is founded on trust.”

In short, we give the police the power to kill based on the trust that the police will not abuse that power.  Any breach of that faith, and the system breaks down.  Fear replaces trust, peace gives way to conflict, and anger divides the police force from the community it was formed to protect. 

Despite Sheriff Rambosk’s professed embrace of the Memphis Model and the community/police collaboration that produced its landmark reforms, the CCSO’s words and actions since Nicolas’s killing reveal very little, if any, real commitment to the spirit or the letter of that more humane policing paradigm. Indeed, the Sheriff’s latest statement claiming that policies and practices essential to the model are already in place only underscores how far policing in Immokalee still has to go to meet those standards, when measured against the stark reality of the dash-cam video documenting Nicolas’s violent death and the total absence of those progressive policies in practice.  

But though the Sheriff’s reference to the elements of that model may seem cynical, the fact remains that the CCSO is aware of more modern approaches to policing, and of the commitment to open, transparent dialogue and community collaboration that undergird them.  And that awareness, while frustratingly insufficient today, may ultimately prove to be the first step toward genuine reform. 

Nothing we do today can bring Nicolas back; his son, 13 at the time of his father’s death, will build the rest of his life and his own family without his father to love and guide him.  But an open, honest dialogue with Immokalee farmworker community leaders, and with the Southwest Florida faith and youth organizations calling for long-overdue reforms in the wake of Nicolas Morales’s brutal death — like the dialogue launched in Memphis nearly 4o years ago in the wake of an all-too-similar tragedy — would honor his memory in a way that would make Nicolas Jr proud. 

The seeds are already in the ground.  It’s our job now to ensure they grow.