Sarasota family pushing for mental health resources for families and law enforcement following personal tragedy

Sarasota County

SARASOTA COUNTY (WFLA) – On Corey Road in Sarasota Springs, there’s fresh flowers and a purple cross in memory of Adrean Stephenson. The 63-year-old was shot and killed by Sarasota County deputies during a confrontation earlier this month that stemmed from a domestic battery call.

Her family tells 8 On Your Side Stephenson has mental health issues. She was having a breakdown that turned violent when they called 911 for help.

“We called for help. We didn’t want her to hurt herself obviously. She went out the door with a knife and that is the last time we saw her alive,” said Stephenson’s son-in-law Tom Pipitone.

The investigation into the deputy-involved shooting is still underway. The Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office says Stephenson was armed with an 8-inch filet knife when she ignored multiple verbal commands and continued to approach deputies. Following an unsuccessful taser deployment to de-escalate the situation, a sergeant on scene fired two fatal shots.

Pipitone and his wife, Nicole, feel the situation shouldn’t have ended in Stephenson’s death.

“I understand the officer has a family to go home to and I am not mad at the police about this. I just think that they need to have more resources and better training for incidents just like this,” said Pipitone.

Sheriff Tom Knight agrees the tragedy shouldn’t have happened. He says there’s a major lack in services available to families dealing with mental health crises, leaving them no option other than calling 911.

“We are not mental health professionals. We are well trained to triage things, to Baker Act people, to take people into custody and protect them from themselves,” said Sheriff Knight.

In the last year, the sheriff’s office Baker Acted more than 1,300 people and more than 6,300 in the last five years.

“We have done 6,300 in five years with no problems and we had one tragedy.. that is a tragedy that didn’t need to happen like the family is saying. We agree with them and I agree with them as Sheriff. It didn’t need to happen., but they had nowhere to turn in a violent situation. They called us to protect them and we had to protect the community and protect the deputies and a tragic thing happened,” said Sheriff Knight.

The sheriff says the lack of services locally has lead to a breaking point.

“There is such a wide gap in services available. We are starting to see tragedy happen now purely because of a lack of social services and lack of mental health services,” said Sheriff Knight. “We need services, we need funding. The Sheriff’s Office is well funded, well trained… The deputies on that scene were well trained. We have everything we need… What we don’t have is professional mental health programs that families can call in lieu of calling police,” he continued.

The Pipitone family plans on reaching out to state and local leaders in a push for more mental health funding, training and support for law enforcement.

“We are willing to speak to anybody that is willing to give us 10 minutes of their time and just listen,” said Nicole Pipitone.

“We can maybe put something together and try to move forward with it so this doesn’t happen again. Everybody with mental health issues needs help,” said Tom Pipitone.

Pipitone thinks it would be helpful for mental health professional to respond alongside law enforcement. “Why not send out a counselor or somebody that knows about mental health and they can try to talk them down. Last resort is last resort. Don’t get me wrong, but use all the other resources first and if it still came out to the same scenario after all that was done, at least they tried,” said Pipitone.

“Tragic situations bring advocacy and my hopes will be for the family that they become an advocacy family for this so it doesn’t happen again to another family,” said Sheriff Knight.

FDLE requires 40 hours of training for law enforcement every four years. Deputies at the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office undergo a minimum of 40 hours of training every year.

The Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office says its deputies on scene had a combined 120 hours of crisis intervention team training. They’ve also trained in person and online in mental health awareness and PTSD within the last two years and have annual training in de-escalation techniques for all levels of use of force.

“We can assure this community and I can assure the family that my deputies are well trained and this agency is well funded. We triage things every day. This is something that couldn’t be triaged. Their advocacy could prevent this from happening in the future,” he continued.

The family has created a GoFundMe page to help cover unexpected funeral expenses.

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