ST. MARTINVILLE — On the day her son was killed, Barbara Noel saw familiar signs the 32-year-old needed help: Michael Noel was guzzling coffee and growing agitated, kicking an ironing board and knocking over an ashtray.
She waited until he left their home that morning before she dialed 911, a call she made many times during her son’s lifelong struggle with his mental illness. This time, her call for help led to a deadly encounter between her son — who had paranoid schizophrenia — and two deputies from the St. Martin Parish Sheriff’s Office.
Investigators have released few details about Michael Noel’s fatal shooting on the evening of Dec. 21. A State Police report says Noel was killed during a struggle when he resisted deputies’ efforts to take him into protective custody and drive him to a hospital.
His mother and aunt Sable Alex say they witnessed the shooting in the living room of their home. Although some details of their accounts differ, both said Michael Noel wasn’t armed and never posed a threat before one of the deputies shot him once in the chest.
Barbara Noel recalls screaming, “They killed him! They killed him!” after her son collapsed and died on the floor without saying a word.
“They never gave him no CPR. They never said they were sorry. They just wanted us out of the house,” she said.
Noel’s killing appears to fit a troubling, tragic pattern. Deadly confrontations between law enforcement officers and people with mental illnesses have remained a persistent problem for years, but experts see anecdotal evidence and limited data that suggests the problem has worsened as governments dismantle networks of health care services.
A December 2015 report by the Arlington, Virginia-based Treatment Advocacy Center says severe mental illness is believed to be a factor in up to half of all deadly law enforcement encounters. But the report says the link has been rendered “virtually invisible” by the government’s failure to accurately count and report fatal police encounters.
Standard police tactics tend to make a person in the grips of a mental health crisis more afraid, more agitated and less likely to comply with an officer’s commands, said Laura Usher, crisis intervention team program manager for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“It is unacceptable that people in mental health crisis get killed when they call for help. On the other hand, it’s unacceptable to put the burden on police when the mental health system should be responsible for them,” Usher said.
Michael Noel’s mother said he first exhibited signs of a mental illness when he was 8 or 9 and threatened to jump out a window.
“We thought he was playing, but he wasn’t playing,” she said. “They didn’t diagnose him with nothing then, but I knew he was sick.”
He was diagnosed about age 13, when he spent six months at a state hospital in central Louisiana. And he spent three months at a different state hospital in his mid-20s.
Barbara Noel said her son lost his Medicaid coverage about two years ago. It’s unclear why, but she said that made it even harder to get the help he needed. She said he frequently relied on hospital visits to treat his illness and often couldn’t afford his medication. He also was treated at a mental health clinic in Lafayette, roughly 18 miles from their home.
The day of the shooting marked the fourth time in less than eight months that Barbara Noel had obtained an order from the parish coroner for deputies to take her son into protective custody so he could be involuntarily treated at a hospital in Lafayette. The orders say he had been suicidal, hallucinating, hearing voices and talking to imaginary people.
A Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman says that, over the past decade, deputies had responded to dozens of calls at the modest home Noel shared with his mother and aunt. Many were for minor offenses like trespassing, but he was charged with assault in November 2005 after he punched, kicked and spat at deputies who responded to a call that he was drunk and fighting with relatives.
Michael Noel later told a judge he was “out of it” at the time of the incident, according to a transcript of the hearing where he pleaded no contest to the charges. “Tell them I am sorry,” he said of the deputies.
Court records also show Noel was arrested in 2014 on a count of violating a protective order obtained by his ex-girlfriend, the mother of his three children. In her written petition for the order, the woman says Noel had been “talking crazy every day” and made her scared to leave him alone with the children. He also was arrested on a battery charge in 2008 for allegedly choking and hitting the same ex-girlfriend.
At least six calls to the Sheriff’s Office from the Noel family’s home since August 2010 involved Michael and a complaint related to his mental health, according to a sample of reports provided by the agency.
A week before the shooting, a deputy responded to a “mental complaint” at the Noel family’s home and spoke to Michael, who said he “speaks to Jesus Christ,” an incident report says. Barbara Noel said she saw her son talking to the deputy but didn’t have any reason to be concerned.
A brief report on the Dec. 14 call says the matter was referred to “CIT,” apparently referring to the Sheriff’s Office’s Crisis Intervention Team. On its website, the department says its CIT members receive specialized training to respond to people experiencing a mental health crisis.
Barbara Noel said she doesn’t know if anyone from the Sheriff’s Office followed up on the Dec. 14 call before her son’s death. Maj. Ginny Higgins, a Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman, referred all questions posed by an Associated Press reporter to the State Police. A State Police spokesman said he could provide no information beyond the contents of its one-page report because the investigation hasn’t been completed.
Higgins told The Advocate in December the agency has administered crisis intervention training for its corrections and patrol officers at least four times since 2014. Higgins wouldn’t tell the AP whether either deputy involved in Noel’s shooting received the training.
Barbara Noel says her son, at 5-foot-6 and roughly 130 pounds, couldn’t have overpowered the two deputies who arrived at their home to carry out the order she had obtained from the coroner on the afternoon of Dec. 21.
Noel and Sable Alex said he yelled “Murderers!” when he spotted the deputies outside the house and tried in vain to block them from entering. Once inside, they said, the deputies wrestled Michael Noel to the floor and managed to snap a handcuff link onto one of his wrists. The relatives said the struggle moved to a couch, where one of the deputies shocked Michael Noel twice with a stun gun.
Barbara Noel and Alex give different accounts of what happened next.
Alex said Michael Noel, shaking from the stun gun’s jolts, began shuffling toward one of the deputies, who told him to stop before shooting from several feet away. Barbara Noel, however, said the deputy was standing behind her son when he reached over Michael’s right shoulder, pointed the gun downward at his chest and shot him at point-blank range.
Lucretia Pecantte, a lawyer for the family, said those differences shouldn’t influence authorities’ determination of whether the shooting was justified.
Michael Noel’s relatives believe race was a factor in the confrontation. Noel was black and both deputies are white, they said. They question why around 45 minutes elapsed before an ambulance arrived at the scene.
Amandeus Alex, Michael Noel’s 29-year-old cousin, arrived at the house in the aftermath of the shooting. He says he was turned away by an officer who said, “Hey man, this is not no racial thing.”
Alex said he believes the deputies would have had a “different attitude” if the home’s residents weren’t poor and black.
“This home tells it all,” he said. “Just because this home looks like this, they figured, ‘Oh, they smoke dope over here. This is a crack house, so we can do anything we want.’ That’s how they felt.”
The family’s attorneys are preparing a lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Office.
Database of violence and severe mental illness: http://www.treatmentadvocacycenter.org/problem/preventable-tragedies-database
National Alliance on Mental Illness: http://www.nami.org/
Crisis Intervention Training: http://cit.memphis.edu/aboutCIT.php
Police Executive Research Forum: http://www.policeforum.org/