A day after deciding not to charge a police officer who shot a 31-year-old man in a mental health crisis, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman responded to criticism Thursday from the man’s family.
Plymouth officer Amy Therkelsen shot Derek Wolfsteller twice in the head July 23 at an Arby’s restaurant after the unarmed man tried to take her gun. She had used a Taser twice before a struggle.
“I really don’t think the officer had any choices in what she did,” Freeman said, adding that if someone reaches for an officer’s gun, they have to respond appropriately.
In the recording of the 911 call released this week, Wolfsteller, who had a history of mental health issues including paranoia, called police to ask for an ambulance, saying he had a mental illness.
He was one of nine out of 13 people killed by police in 2015 in Minnesota who had a history of mental health issues or were having a mental health crisis, according to a Star Tribune review.
Since 2000, at least 45 percent of people who have died in forceful encounters with law enforcement officials had a history of mental illness or were in crisis.
Other officers were on the way to the incident in Plymouth, Chief Mike Goldstein said this week, but Therkelsen — a seven-year officer at the time of the shooting — went in because Wolfsteller could have been a risk to others in the restaurant.
“In this particular incident, officer Therkelsen attempted to do everything we’d ask her to do,” Goldstein said.
Attorney Chris Ritts, who is representing Wolfsteller’s family, said this week that they will pursue a lawsuit against police. Freeman said that the case for such a suit is “groundless.”
Asked Thursday what he thought should be done differently in cases involving mental illness, Freeman said that all police should get training in how to deal with people with mental illness. Police also should get more training in not using force, he said.
Freeman pointed to the mental health system and said it was “not doing as well as it should have been” in Wolfsteller’s case, despite his family trying to get him help by dropping him off at a hospital the day before.
In cases involving mental illness, Freeman said, “I really hope five years from now we could have significantly fewer deaths at the hands of cops.”
Ritts said Wolfsteller’s family was angry it took nearly a year for Freeman to review the case, a delay that the county attorney attributed to the Minneapolis police shooting of Jamar Clark that became a controversy spurring weeks of protests.
It took time, he said, to talk to witnesses, get more details from the investigating agencies and wait for DNA tests.
The Plymouth review also was delayed, Freeman said, by his decision in March to do away with grand juries in police shootings to improve accountability.
As a result, the Wolfsteller case was the second (after Clark’s) to see the release of so much information, from documents to video and audio. It’s “made us the most accountable jurisdiction in the country,” Freeman said.
The delay didn’t affect the decision, he added.