One brandished a BB gun at an emergency medical technician. Another spat in the face of a supermarket manager and yelled profanities at her before pulling a knife on a state trooper. A third kept advancing, knives in hand, even after police repeatedly fired a taser at him.
Massachusetts police shot four suspects — killing two — in a single 10-day span this month, a rate many times the usual in a state where the FBI recorded only nine police shootings for all of 2019. The confrontations — in Lynn, Winchester, Everett, and Malden — were unrelated except for these details:
All four men who were shot had been treated for mental illness, court records and interviews show, ranging from bipolar disorder to depression. At least three had a history of drug abuse as well.
The shootings of the men — all of them white — underscore the unpredictability of police encounters with civilians who may be in the throes of a mental health crisis. Even though people with mental illness account for up to 10 percent of police calls and 25 percent of people fatally shot by police, researchers said most officers aren’t adequately prepared for these sometimes volatile encounters.
“It’s a very difficult situation to respond to, and [police] simply don’t feel that they’re properly equipped to do it,” said William Terrill, an associate dean and professor at Arizona State University who studies police behavior.
The pandemic that has engulfed the world since March is making law enforcement officers’ work even more difficult by exacerbating mental health problems, said Jack McDevitt, director of Northeastern University’s Institute on Race and Justice.
“We have some people with mental health issues who can’t get the same treatment,” he said. “We need to help get our community and police officers prepared because they’re going to see more of this.”
The string of shootings began Nov. 2, when police shot and killed a robbery suspect, John S. Mellone, 39, in Lynn. The mother of the suspect said he was being treated for depression during his divorce. On the same day, police killed Thomas Celona, a 35-year-old man who was inside his Winchester apartment armed with two knives.
On Nov. 11, an officer shot a 45-year-old Everett resident who had bipolar disorder after a five-hour standoff that began after the man allegedly punched and strangled his mother. During the encounter, Anthony J. Morrison allegedly pointed a BB gun at an emergency medical technician and charged at officers after they pepper sprayed him, according to the Middlesex district attorney’s office.
Officers fired a bean bag munition at him, but when Morrison didn’t surrender, an Everett officer fired and wounded him, the DA’s office said.
The very next day, a state trooper shot and wounded Steven Brawley, 62, in Malden after he attempted to stab the trooper and a Malden police officer with a folding knife, the Middlesex DA said.
It’s relatively uncommon for Massachusetts police to shoot people, statistics show. A 2016 Globe Spotlight report found between 2005 and 2015, there were an average of 15 lethal and nonlethal shootings by police annually. Last year, there were nine incidents, according to data reported to the FBI.
However, there have been at least 16 police shootings already this year, including a cluster of shootings earlier this year as well as the incidents this month. In May alone, there were four shootings by police. in Braintree, Haverhill, Pittsfield, and Boston. None was fatal, and, in the Boston case, no one was injured.
The most high-profile police shooting in the state this year involved a man whose family said he was diagnosed with bipolar and schizoaffective disorders. Police shot and killed Juston Root, 41, on Feb. 7 after he brandished a paintball gun at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and fled to Brookline as police followed in pursuit.
Root’s family has filed a wrongful death suit, saying he was struck by gunfire 26 times.
Around the nation, officers get more training in mental illness than in years past, but the additional education hasn’t prepared them to “assess properly the level of danger that they’re facing,” said Maria Haberfeld, a professor of police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.
She said many officers view mental health calls with apprehension and support efforts to give civilian experts the authority to intervene.
“It’s really one of the more dreaded encounters,” Haberfeld said.
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, said the organization has helped about 100 law enforcement agencies implement deescalation techniques so they don’t always rely on force or the threat of force to compel people to follow orders.
“When someone’s in crisis, the most important thing you can do is communicate,” he said. “We can save lives and save careers too, because no police officer wants to go through this. They don’t want to take someone’s life.”
In Everett, where Morrison was shot, the city said all officers get mental health training, more than 20 percent have been taught crisis intervention techniques, and the city is contracting on-call mental health services for police.
“These are some of the most complex problems that you’re going to see in any community,” police Chief Steven Mazzie said.
The shooting of Mellone illustrates that complexity. A Lynn police officer shot and killed Mellone after Revere officers saw him driving the reported getaway car from a robbery in that city. Revere police pursued Mellone into Lynn where he pulled into a dead-end street.
The Lynn officer fired at Mellone after he saw him trap a Revere officer with his vehicle, the Essex district attorney’s office said. But Mellone’s mother, Adriana Bedry, said she doesn’t believe her son posed enough of a threat to justify the use of lethal force.
“He’s afraid of the cops to begin with,” said Bedry, 62, who visited the shooting scene the day after her son’s death. “He’s petrified of police.”
Mellone’s past includes cocaine abuse and a prison sentence in 2013 for unarmed robbery. After being freed, Bedry said, Mellone found stability as a car salesman and enjoyed some happy times until his wife filed for divorce last year and restricted his contact with their young daughter.
“He was in a deep depression not seeing his daughter,” said Bedry, noting that Mellone was prescribed medication to help his mood.
Bedry said investigators couldn’t answer most of her questions, and she knows little about the Revere robbery. Revere police and the Essex district attorney’s office, which is investigating the shooting, declined to provide the robbery report.
A police report about the confrontation with Morrison in Everett said his mother and a neighbor worried how he would react when officers arrived. The women requested that an EMT first approach Morrison, believing that “he would be better helped by mental health professionals.”
The EMT entered the apartment but quickly retreated.
“He’s got a gun,” the EMT told police, according to the report. During the standoff, two police negotiators and a close friend spoke with Morrison by phone, a city spokeswoman said.
Morrison is now charged with assaulting his mother and pointing a BB gun at the EMT. He has pleaded not guilty and is being held without bail pending a dangerousness hearing next month. His mother declined to speak with the Globe, and his lawyer didn’t respond to requests for comment.
In the Brawley shooting, security cameras and witnesses with cellphones captured the confrontation between police and Brawley in Malden near the Revere line. The incident began at a Stop & Shop in Revere where Brawley allegedly spat in the face of a manager, a police report said.
A worker who followed Brawley out of the store saw a State Police cruiser parked at a nearby pizzeria, went inside, and got the trooper, the report said. After the trooper called out to Brawley to stop, Brawley pulled out a pocket knife, a witness told investigators.
Cellphone video showed Brawley disregard orders from the trooper and a Malden police officer to drop the knife, the report said. The trooper had his gun drawn.
Another man said he heard a woman yell, “Don’t shoot. He’s mentally ill.”
The Malden officer pulled Brawley to the ground where they struggled with each other, one bystander told investigators. The trooper then shot Brawley, the bystander said, according to a police report.
“Brawley does not drop the knife and seems [unfazed] by being shot,” a Malden detective wrote after watching one cellphone video of the confrontation.
Even after the trooper fired, the struggle continued. Brawley put the knife in his pocket, retrieved his hat from the ground, and then threw a punch toward the officers before being taken into custody, the Malden detective wrote.
Brawley was taken to Massachusetts General Hospital, where he was listed as being on suicide watch on the day after his arrest, court records show.
He has pleaded not guilty to two counts of assault with a dangerous weapon and is being held without bail pending a dangerousness hearing on next month. His lawyer and siblings didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The other fatal shooting claimed the life of Thomas Celona. Winchester officers were summoned to Celona’s apartment by a security guard at the complex, the Middlesex DA’s office said. Inside the unit, officers found Celona armed with two knives. The officers ordered him to surrender the weapons and used a Taser on him twice when he didn’t comply, the DA’s office said. An officer shot and killed Celona as he advanced toward police with the knives, the DA’s office said.
Adriana Bedry, who buried her son, Mellone, on Nov. 9, said she can’t forgive the officer who killed him.
“Even if God tells me to forgive him, I won’t,” Bedry said.
John Ellement of the Globe staff contributed to this report.