David Salisbury has struggled for decades with mental health problems, but an outburst that involved throwing a television at the back door nearly two years ago landed the Alexandria man in jail — not in a hospital or treatment facility. Ever since, the Salisburys have been protesting the way police handled the incident.
Now they’ve learned that the state Department of Human Rights will not take their side in the dispute.
In a decision dated Dec. 29, the agency found no probable cause that the Alexandria police officers who went to the Salisburys’ house in February 2015 engaged in discrimination on the basis of Salisbury’s disability.
All three officers had some level of crisis intervention training to help de-escalate conflicts, the decision noted, and the officer who drove Salisbury to jail took the course “Protecting and Serving People with Disabilities.”
The decision noted that state law gives officers the discretion to take a mentally ill person to a treatment facility if the person is in danger of injuring themselves or others if not immediately detained — but the law does not require it.
The Salisburys’ case comes amid mounting concerns over relying on police to respond to mental health emergencies and the high number of mentally ill people caught up in the criminal justice system. Mental health advocate Sue Abderholden, head of NAMI Minnesota, said Salisbury’s ordeal is all too familiar. Most people have no idea they can tap a mental health crisis team for such emergencies.
Alexandria Police Chief Richard Wyffels said the agency’s ruling pleased him. There were safety risks, he said, and if the mentally ill person is acting out, the first stop is going to be jail. Wyffels said he saw the incident as a domestic situation, with the son and wife in harm’s way.
“Our officers are very sensitive to mental illness and know this is part of the world we live in,” Wyffels said. “The police did their job in this case.”
The Salisburys are considering an appeal.
“I’m just in shock,” said Pat Salisbury. “They came into our house. I told them my husband was sick and needed to go to the hospital.”
David Salisbury, 62, has been mentally ill since he was a teen and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, a bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and anxiety, his wife said. He has been hospitalized at least three times.
The Salisburys’ teenage son called 911 that day in February 2015. His father, who frequently yelled and carried on, had been on edge for weeks over a dispute involving a neighbor’s dog. The neighbor got a restraining order against Salisbury.
The Salisburys were driving home from an unfavorable court hearing about the restraining order when David Salisbury became enraged and tossed his son Zac, then 18, out of the car in frigid weather.
Zac walked to his school and called 911. A transcript shows he told the dispatcher that his father was mentally ill and had suffered many episodes in the past. He was “throwing things,” Zac said, and told them he didn’t think his mother was safe.
Pat Salisbury said Zac would not have known to call the local Region 4 South Crisis Team line and said she didn’t realize that the team made house calls.
The 911 dispatcher sent Sgt. Chad Schroeder, who was on patrol nearby, to the house. Schroeder was familiar with Salisbury and interpreted the disturbance as a domestic assault, according to the city’s answer to the complaint.
“Sgt. Schroeder opened the door from the garage, and observed Patricia crying and looking afraid. He observed items thrown about the house and broken, to include a television.”
Salisbury, who said he was unaware anyone had called 911, said he was confused and struggled with police. He later calmed down.
Pat Salisbury asked Schroeder to put her husband on a 72-hour medical hold instead of arresting him, according to the city’s response, but Schroeder decided he didn’t meet the criteria.
Salisbury was charged with domestic assault, obstructing the legal process and disorderly conduct. His wife said a lawyer’s bad advice led him to plead guilty to the domestic assault and obstruction misdemeanors.
Salisbury recalls how terrified he had been in jail and how he could not stop crying. His wife said he was left alone in cells for five days and received only some of his medications, some on reduced dosages. He asked for a doctor but did not see one.
After the incident, the Alexandria couple contacted lawyers, the attorney general’s office and even Gov. Mark Dayton, seeking redress. During a hearing on mental health issues at the State Capitol last year, Sen. Barb Goodwin read a two-page letter from David Salisbury.
Salisbury said he was taken to the hospital after he was let out of jail but was never examined.
Finally, in a last-ditch move last year, the Salisburys filed a complaint with the state Department of Human Rights arguing that the Alexandria police discriminated against Salisbury based on his mental health disability.
Of the hundreds of discrimination complaints Minnesota’s Human Rights Department takes each year, only a minuscule number accuse police of disability discrimination based on mental health, according to numbers the state agency provided. It was able to find five such cases since 2012, including the Salisburys’. In each instance the agency found no probable cause for discrimination.
Roughly half the complaints that Human Rights handles involve employment matters.
To address the larger issue, however, the state is creating a special mental health crisis line for Minnesotans to call instead of 911 or a local crisis number, but it likely won’t be in place statewide until 2018 or 2019.
A pilot of the new crisis line will start in the Twin Cities area sometime in the coming year.