I-TEAM | Examining mental health police calls: a crisis or a crime?

Published: Nov. 14, 2022 at 6:34 PM EST
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - When a young man has a mental health crisis in his own home, his mom thought deputies would help her get him to the hospital.

Instead, he was punched and put in handcuffs.

That mother told the I-TEAM she now regrets ever calling the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office for help.

“That is probably the worst phone call that I’ve ever made in my life,” said LaSonya Grandstaff.

Not long after our I-TEAM started asking questions, the Augusta District Attorney’s Office dropped his charges, so all this 2021 incident really did was delay his treatment.

One in five adults has a mental illness, so it’s possible someone you love could end up in a situation just like this.

That’s why our I-TEAM’s Meredith Anderson is asking: when is a crisis – a crime?

Kirkland Grandstaff needed medicine – not a mugshot.

Granted, deputies are not doctors, nor should we expect them to be, but when the family contacted us to look into what happened to Kirkland Grandstaff, we reviewed the body camera video and saw a deputy punching Grandstaff in the head multiple times as he was being arrested.

When the I-TEAM went digging, we found this deputy is likely a lot more prepared than most to be on a mental health call.

He has a college degree in psychology and training for something like this.

So, how did this go so very wrong?

When deputies race to a scene, they often have no idea what they’re walking into, but it seems on this day, they did have some vital information.

LaSonya Grandstaff met them outside and calmly gave them the same info she gave dispatch.

LaSonya Grandstaff: “He’s 24. We’ve been to Aur -- Aurora twice. We’ve been MCG. They wouldn’t admit him. We went over to Doctors, August the 14th.”

She says she didn’t call 911 because she didn’t really consider this an emergency. “I said, all I need you to do is to come and help assist me get him to a facility or hospital.”

The bodycam footage shows what happened next.

Unnamed second deputy: “Kirkland, can we talk to you? Can you come out and talk to us?”

Kirkland: “No. I can’t. I’m not talking to anybody.”

When deputies move in closer, it appears one holds back laughter.

Kirkland: “I do not want nobody speaking to me. I am naked. Please do not come in my room.”

Kirkland cracks the door, briefly and says, “You think I’m sexy?”

Deputy: “No.”

Kirkland, “Ok, well there you go.”

Most of this conversation happens through a closed door.

Kirkland: “I just want y’all to leave – to be honest. I just want y’all to leave.”

Unnamed second deputy: “We’re not going to leave until we know for a fact that you’re a-ok.”

That seems to work and Kirkland gets dressed.

Kirkland: “So, I will stay in at the door and talk to you.”

Deputy White: “Yeah. Ok. Appreciate it, man.”

Kirkland: “I’m not doing anything else.”

Deputy White: “What’s going on? What’s going on?”

Kirkland: “And my phone? I don’t trust this lady I’m living with right now. So yeah, I’ll talk to you right now. How are you doing?”

Deputy White: “Doing pretty good. Doing pretty good.”

Unnamed second deputy: “I’m fine, sir.”

Kirkland Grandstaff isn’t fine, though.

He tells deputies he’s an artist, and, as he describes his work, he also paints a picture of his mental state.

Kirkland: “There’s the good wolf and there’s the bad wolf. There’s this one wolf that feeds nothing but good intention and positivity. Peace and sh** like that, and then there’s the other one - which is me right now - who is all about feeding chaos – feeling, feeding strife, and feeding misery, and things like that.”

He admits to breaking a picture frame and repeatedly asks deputies to leave.

Kirkland: “Them pictures, I could hang – I could hang the b**** back up…I don’t give a f***…ok.” (shuts the door) I’ll talk to y’all later. I don’t give a f*** about that…you know. Oh, so now you being aggressive.”

Unnamed second deputy: “Yeah.”

Deputy White: “Yeah.”

Next, you can hear a scuffle and you can hear the second deputy yell – “Hold him at his neck!” “Somebody help me.”

Kirkland yells. “Ma, help me, please! Somebody help me! Help me! Help me! Please help me! Help me, please! Help me, please!”

Deputy White hits Kirkland four times.

The other deputy yells, “No! Don’t…don’t.”

LaSonya Grandstaff finds it all hard to relive in our interview. We sat down with her last year.

“I just hear this scuffle. And I go running down the hallway. And I see Deputy White hitting my son several times in the head and I said, whoa, that’s not what I called you for,” she said. “And he turned and he looked at me and he said, well, he hit me first.”

Unnamed second deputy: “You’ve got a charge of criminal trespass.”

Kirkland: “Criminal trespass? This is my house.”

Unnamed second deputy: “You can’t tear up stuff.”

Kirkland: “This is my house.”

Deputy White: “and I’m charging you with felony obstruction.”

According to the arrest warrant, the criminal trespass charge is because he “intentionally caused damage to one picture frame.”

That means deputies pushed their way into the 24-year-old’s room, knowing he was struggling with a mental health crisis, to put him in handcuffs for breaking something in his own home.

Unnamed second deputy: “How many picture frames did he break?”

LaSonya Grandstaff: “It was just that one. And I mean, it was a picture of him.”

Unnamed second deputy: “I mean, I saw a bunch of glass.”

LaSonya Grandstaff: “It was just a picture of him.”

When Grandstaff’s mother asks deputies about the charge, she gets a different answer.

LaSonya: “Do they have to charge him with criminal trespassing?”

Unnamed second deputy: “It’s, it’s a form of family violence. I was trying not to even have to go that route but because he would not de-escalate. We probably could’ve done something else, but anytime that it relates to family violence, we don’t have any leeway on that.”

When we sat down for this interview a year ago, Kirkland was still in jail. He stayed there for two weeks. During those two weeks, jail records show he did not get the treatment his mother called deputies to help in the first place.

LaSonya Grandstaff: “If you couldn’t handle it, why even try to go into that room? You know, why even go through all of everything that happened? And then with the outcome of labeling my son as a violent criminal?”

According to one incident report, the violence was a quote “brief struggle” where Kirkland was “taken into custody without further incident.”

However, Deputy Benjamin White’s incident report says Kirkland “struck him in the face.”

While the body cam video shows Kirkland thrashing around and resisting being arrested, the I-TEAM couldn’t find any video clips where Kirkland punched Deputy White.

What is caught on camera? Deputy White punching Kirkland multiple times, though some of the punches are partially off-camera because the body cam appears to have fallen off during the struggle.

We can’t measure how hard Deputy White’s punches are, but he does make multiple references on the body cam video to pain in his hand.

Meanwhile, Kirkland also says his head hurts.

Cpl. John Scott is heard saying to EMS: “He’s a signal 16, mental patient. He fought with these two. In the process, he got a couple of strikes to the head. No visible injuries.”

Gold Cross Medic: “So, what’s going on?”

Kirkland: “Sir. I don’t even know. My head hurts.”

He’s eventually cleared to go to jail, but the screening appears to only focus on his possible head injury, perhaps to see if he has a concussion.

The only medical reference to his mental state comes here:

Cpl. John Scott: “We’re not professionals. We can’t say oh, yeah, he’s not culpable. Because he broke, you know, because he’s mentally ill. But leave that up to you know, people get paid better than us.”

Deputies tell Kirkland he will get help eventually.

Deputy: “You understand what I’m saying? You gotta be on your best behavior.”

Kirkland (crying): “I don’t. Because I never wanted any of this for myself.”

Deputy: “I know. I know. We’re going to get you taken care of. We’re going to get you some help.”

Kirkland: “I need help. I don’t need to go to jail. I need help.”

Deputy: “I know.”

Meanwhile, Deputy White has to submit a use of force report because he hit Kirkland.

According to that report, Deputy White’s supervisor notes Kirkland “struck Deputy White in the face” and that his “hard hand techniques” – or punches were “justified and necessary.”

Even before that report is made, body cam captures the two talking about Deputy White’s track record with use of force.

Deputy White: “Welcome to B/C rotation.”

Cpl. Scott: “A/D is the same way.”

Deputy White: “It’s Zone 5 is what it is.”

Cpl. Scott “No. It’s you is what it is. No, people don’t like you (laughs.)”

The I-TEAM requested all of Deputy White’s use of force reports.

Turns out, he has six total in the two years he’s been a deputy. Each time supervisors conclude the Deputy’s use of force is justified.

Meredith Anderson: “I don’t think we can expect officers to be psychologists. You know, they’re not doctors.”

LaSonya Grandstaff: “Right.”

Meredith Anderson “But does it make it worse to you that they knew the situation walking into it?”

LaSonya Grandstaff: “Yes, it does.”

According to his linked-in page, Deputy White does have a college degree in psychology.

He lists a BA in Psychology/Sociology from Augusta University.

On top of that, records the I-TEAM obtained from the Georgia Public Safety Training Center show he’s also had training in crisis intervention.

In March of 2021, he passed the 40-hour class that focuses solely on how law enforcement responds to calls about mental health.

The incident with Kirkland happened months later after he completed that training.

LaSonya Grandstaff says it’s all unsettling. “We have to stop making excuses for police officers and saying that they’re not trained.”

Three days after this interview, Lasonya Grandstaff sent me a text message, letting me know they are officially dropping the charges, and Kirkland was finally in a treatment hospital in Atlanta. Court documents show there did “not appear to be sufficient evidence to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”

It also noted Kirkland’s “underlying mental-health concern” was being actively addressed in an in-patient hospital.”

LaSonya Grandstaff says she’s still haunted by the outcome of her cry for help. “I ended up with five police cars in front of my house -- five deputies in my house. And all I could think about, if they all go in that room, my son is not going to come out of there. We’re gonna be calling the coroner.”

Instead, now, LaSonya Grandstaff is calling for change.

She says we must do a better job getting those in crisis to a hospital instead of putting them in handcuffs.

Numbers show those with a mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed by law enforcement.

Those with an untreated mental illness are involved in at least one in every four fatal police shootings.

Tonight, Kirkland’s mother is still thankful he’s alive.

We did reach out to Richmond County Sheriff Richard Roundtree, and he declined to comment on this, but it’s important to note, we’re shining a light on Kirkland’s case not just to look at this one case or any one law enforcement agency.

We hope it starts a conversation about how all local agencies respond to calls about mental health issues and how maybe we can all work together to make it a better experience for everyone involved.