Pinellas state lawyer clears St. Pete officer in taking pictures of man with psychological sickness

Pinellas state attorney clears St. Pete officer in shooting of man with mental illness

ST. PETERSBURG — Pinellas County’s top prosecutor has cleared a St. Petersburg police officer who last month shot and killed a mentally ill man.

The Aug. 7 shooting of Jeffrey Haarsma, 55, was justified, according to a letter Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe wrote to St. Petersburg police Chief Anthony Holloway. The state attorney’s investigation backed law enforcement’s account of what happened: that Haarsma tried to choke Officer Alison Savarese, and that the officer feared for her life when she drew and fired her weapon.

But McCabe also pointed out an area “of particular concern” in the way police responded that night to Haarsma’s home. Police had been to his second floor apartment at the French Quarter North Condominiums 25 times this year, McCabe wrote in the Sept. 1 letter. On several of those calls, he had “exhibited some form of violence” toward police.

That included an encounter the day before the shooting, McCabe said. Three officers responded and noted that Haarsma “exhibited what appeared to be a propensity for violence toward the female officer,” the prosecutor said.

“Yet, on the night of” the shooting, McCabe said, “only one officer was left to deal with Mr. Haarsma.”

McCabe said this fatal encounter is another example of the need for officers to receive Crisis Intervention Training, which includes guidance on how to deescalate situations involving people with mental health issues.

Related: ‘It shouldn’t have ended this way.’ Friends, family question St. Pete police shooting of mentally ill man

Holloway said Thursday he recognized that McCabe’s review highlighted issues his department must address.

The chief said in the future, officers will be better trained to follow existing department policy that at least two officers should be present when taking someone into custody.

“The officer went through a very violent confrontation, and I’m glad she was able to survive it,” he said. But “I’m not happy we lost someone.”

Savarese was initially accompanied on the 911 call by another officer, Kristen Thomas. A neighbor had reported Haarsma for throwing her outdoor chairs into a Dumpster.

Thomas had gone back to police headquarters after Haarsma refused to open the door, according to the prosecutor’s letter. Thomas, who had previously encountered Haarsma on a call in March, advised her colleague to talk to and detain Haarsma until she got back, the letter said. Thomas told Savarese to call for backup if she needed it.

Holloway said he didn’t know if Thomas had briefed Savarese on Haarsma’s mental health issues. The shooting is still being investigated by the recently formed Pinellas County Use of Deadly Force Investigative Task Force. The chief said that information should be revealed in their review.

The death also highlighted a problem with the department’s computer dispatch system, Holloway said. When officers respond to a certain address, they typically receive information about prior interactions with the occupants. But sometimes a neighbor calls police, or police respond to a building with multiple units. In those cases, officers may not get a complete picture of past encounters because the calls were logged using the neighbor’s address or the complex’s address instead of a specific apartment.

The call the night before the shooting listed the address of Haarsma’s complex, but not his unit. Beginning this week, the department’s computer call dispatch system was amended to ensure officers could see all prior calls at an apartment complex.

“We will red flag the whole apartment complex,” Holloway said. “We’re making sure the officer knows about all the information that exists for that complex.”

Holloway said his department is also taking steps to make sure more officers undergo crisis intervention training. About 120 of the department’s 550 officers have already taken the 40-hour training course run by the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.

That training is offered three times a year and there are limited spots, Holloway said. He plans to look for other training opportunities. New officers who have just graduated from the police academy will now be given an in-person 8-hour training course called Mental Health First Aid before they are assigned to patrols.

Savarese, who returned to duty on Tuesday, had not received intervention training, the chief said. She took the 8-hour course while she was on administrative leave, which is routine in shooting incidents.

Now that the State Attorney’s review is complete, the department’s Office of Professional Standards will review the case to see whether Savarese complied with internal policies or whether any discipline or training recommendation is warranted.

After reading the State Attorney’s letter, Debbie Haarsma said it hasn’t changed her opinion that her brother would still be alive if two or more officers had approached him instead of just Savarese.

“They were out there they day before and they knew his history,” she said. “I have cried a river here. I don’t know if I blame her but I definitely blame the police department.”

Jeffrey “Jeff” Haarsma outside his St. Petersburg condominium. ( Debra Haarsma )

Her brother’s previous experience with the police had made him wary of them, she said. That included a visit from officers in 2017 after Haarsma’s therapist requested that he be committed involuntarily for a mental health evaluation under the Baker Act.

“They dragged him outside in handcuffs and ankle cuffs in his underwear in front of his neighbors,” she said. “If he acted out, that’s probably why.”

Haarsma’s death will be the first review by the new Pinellas task force. The county’s law enforcement leaders announced the new initiative in July, agreeing to allow other law enforcement agencies to investigate their own officers in cases that ended in serious injury or death.

The policy change was made in response to the Black Lives Matter protests and growing calls around the country for more police accountability and transparency following the death of George Floyd, who was killed May 25 by a Minneapolis police officer.