NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – Almost a year ago people watched as body camera footage showed the moment nine law enforcement officers shot and killed a 37-year-old man on Interstate 65 in Nashville.
The incident began after a Tennessee Highway Patrol trooper saw Landon Eastip sitting on the side of I-65 near Hogan Road and stopped to offer him a ride off the interstate. After a brief interaction, Eastip pulled out a box cutter and the officer called for help.
For 30 minutes, Metro Police said the officers tried to negotiate with Istipp as he held the box cutter in his left hand and kept his right hand in his pocket.
Officers opened fire when Eastip pulled a “shiny silver cylindrical object” from his pocket and pointed it at them. Police later confirmed that it was not a gun.
The incident, which drew national attention, raised many questions about how police respond to mental health incidents in a year after several nationwide protests over police shootings.
According to multiple protective orders filed against Istipp between September and November 2021, he had problems with alcoholism, suffered from hallucinations and was accused of violent domestic abuse.
After Eastip’s death, his wife said she wished a mental health professional had been there to help her late husband with what she described as his struggle with mental health issues.
“There were so many options that could have been taken that weren’t taken, and to me that’s unacceptable,” she said in February 2022.
While the Metro Nashville Police Department (MNPD) had mental health doctors responding to calls in some areas at the time, a program called “Partners in Care” was not yet present in the Midtown Hills area where the I-65 shooting occurred . .
How Nashville’s Mental Health Response Program Has Evolved One Year Later
The program, which is a collaboration between MNPD, the Mental Health Cooperative (MHC) and other metro government agencies, has since expanded, with data showing more positive outcomes in mental health emergencies since its launch in June 2021.
By May 2023, Amanda Bracht, senior vice president of public affairs and community development and court services for MHC, said there will be mental health responders staffed in the Midtown Hills area.
There are currently 10 mental health practitioners covering four of eight metro police precincts, including Hermitage, North, South and Central. Because of its success, the Mental Health Cooperative plans to have the Partners in Care program active in every district by 2025.
“We’ve had really good luck in hiring really solid doctors. Low turnover at those positions,” Bracht said. “I definitely think we’re on target moving forward and having solid doctors and officers for this program.”
While Bracht said it’s impossible to know if a mental health worker could have helped Easthip on that particular day, she said the program has helped many people in similar situations.
“Every situation is unique, and certainly the I-65 situation is incredibly tragic in its outcome,” Bracht said. “But we’ve had similar situations where individuals were threatening themselves and potentially threatening others and had a weapon, or a weapon nearby, and we were able to de-escalate and connect those people to care.”
Over 2,400 calls answered by officers, doctors
To date, officers and medics have responded to over 2,400 calls for service that met the criteria for crisis response.
Of those, Bracht said only about 4 percent ended up in arrest.
The majority instead turn to the mental health care system. Many interactions result in either transport to the ER or referral to resources such as MHC’s crisis treatment center.
“One of the first things we saw that actually surprised us was the volume of cases that were identified, which were high-acuity cases,” Bracht said. “The reason we say they’re high-acuity cases is that a lot of them resulted in that person needing to be hospitalized at a much higher percentage than we would have expected.”
In Tennessee, as in most states, Bracht said inpatient hospitalization for psychiatric reasons is usually required when a person has a serious mental illness or serious emotional disturbance and they pose an immediate threat to themselves or others.
First responders often determine whether a Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) is needed before they even arrive on the scene. Bracht said information about history of mental illness, medications and other factors is collected by 911 dispatchers.
Officers may also request a co-response team if it becomes apparent that a person has underlying mental health issues during the course of an investigation or interaction.
“It was dispatched as a disorderly person or a misdemeanor case, but then the officer who gets there based on his or her training says, ‘Wait a minute, there are underlying mental health issues,’ they can ask a co-response team to came and assisted,” said Bracht.
When the program was first launched, only 16 officers received CIT training. Now, over 200 Metro officials have received training as of January 2023. Ultimately, Bracht said the goal is for all officers to be trained in crisis intervention.
The most common cases that require a CIT response are situations in which a person is having suicidal thoughts or when someone is upset and experiencing what are called “psychotic symptoms,” Bracht said.
“We’ve had situations where individuals have already inflicted self-inflicted stab wounds by the time officers and other responders get there,” she said. “And they were able to de-escalate, get them to drop the knife, stop hurting themselves and get them to emergency medical care.”
Cops take the lead when weapons are involved. However, once the situation is deemed safe, Bracht said a mental health clinician will get out of the car and begin communicating with the person. In the meantime, the officer will gather additional information from others on the scene.
“It’s good to have that collaboration between the two where you can hopefully have the clinician develop that relationship with that individual and try to de-escalate that situation, and the officer there for safety, but also to help gather additional information,” Bracht said.
“We’re reaching people who, if it weren’t for this program, might have fallen through the cracks.”
Bracht said she was surprised to learn that a large percentage of people in these situations were not previously known to the mental health system. It was originally thought to be the other way around, with many callers having a prior history of mental health.
However, Bracht said there is a positive outlook based on that data. The program now allows officers and clinicians to work together to connect people with mental health resources they might not have otherwise known existed.
“So we’re reaching people who, if it wasn’t for this program, might have failed, might not have gotten treatment, might have ended up in an unfortunate arrest or some other kind of negative outcome,” Bracht said. “There is clearly a need for this type of program.”
Every week, Bracht said officers and doctors respond to a number of “high acuity” cases where if the mental health doctor wasn’t there or the officer didn’t have the training, “we would have had more negative outcomes.”
“A lot of people will say, ‘Police officers shouldn’t be the first responders to mental health emergencies.’ In a perfect world, I would totally agree. That would be mental health doctors,” Bracht said. “But unfortunately, due to many different factors, officers were often the first responders by default.”
That’s why Bracht said he believes programs like Partners in Care are not only necessary, but have proven “effective” in reducing outcomes like the I-65 shooting. Officials plan to continue to review the program’s data to see what areas can be improved.
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The Nashville Fire Department and EMS also plan to adopt a co-response program in which doctors will be paired with paramedics as soon as next month. Bracht said that’s a “direct result” of the success of the Partners in Care program.
“I can’t say that a clinician would be pushed into that scenario just given all the factors that were going on that particular day,” Bracht said of the I-65 shooting. “But do I firmly believe and know that we have cases that we have been able to help and de-escalate that are incredibly acute?” Yes, we have those.’