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Cal State Community Looking for Answers after Fatal Shooting of Mentally Ill Student

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San Bernardino school knew student was bipolar, family says

By Chris Levister

Cal State University San Bernardino. For many people, the name instantly reminds them of two things: safety and tranquility.

Those cherished thoughts have been called into question since 38-year old graduate student Bartholomew Williams was fatally shot by campus police Saturday.

“There was a lot of confusion. People were running around screaming. First we thought someone had committed suicide,” said senior Ronnise Cotton who lives in the University Village student housing complex where Williams was shot.

“Then we found out that the campus police had shot and killed a student. We were all asking, are we still safe. I think a lot of people are looking for answers,” said Cotton.

Campus police said they shot Williams during what they characterize as a violent altercation between the student and three officers.

Detectives later learned that Williams suffered from a mental illness.

"We have information from his family that he suffered from a mental instability and was probably off his medication at the time of the incident," said Lt. Paul Williams of the San Bernardino city police department.

Campus police officers -- two men and one woman -- had wanted to take the 6-foot, 200-pound grad student in for a psychological evaluation. As they placed one handcuff on one arm, a physical altercation occurred, Williams said at the news conference Sunday, held in front of the housing complex at 1577 W. Northpark Blvd.

"This became a prolonged, violent struggle between the suspect and the officers," Lt. Williams said.

Officers used a series of progressive actions starting with verbal commands, then pepper spray and finally baton strikes, "all of which seemed to have no effect on the suspect," who was described by Lt. Williams as being "muscular."

Williams was unarmed, but allegedly demonstrated "super-human-type strength" during the struggle. He used the officers' own pepper spray against them and grabbed one of their batons, according to Lt. Williams.

The police spokesman said there was no additional information in the case Wednesday. But he added that the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act might prohibit the release of a student’s medical records to law enforcement.

University spokesman Sid Robinson said he was also unclear on whether a student's private medical files could be released to police but said investigators were examining the case "top to bottom."

At an information session Tuesday sponsored by the Black Faculty, Staff and Students Association there were more questions than answers.

While the gathering took on a somber mood, many in the audience were angry and demanded action.

“I’m here to listen,” said a student, who asked that his name be withheld. What are the excuses? Are we going to chock this up as just another police shooting of a “muscular, super human” Black man or are we going to demand some answers?”

“This is a tragic time for the Cal State San Bernardino community,” CSUSB President Tomas Morales told the crowd of faculty, staff, students and members of the community seated quietly in the Santos Manuel Student Event Center on campus.

“Words cannot express how truly saddened we are at this time. Our university family is hurting. Those who knew and loved Bartholomew Williams are hurting. Our police officers are hurting. I am hurting,” said veteran campus Police Chief Jimmie Brown, fighting back tears.

Brown, Morales and representatives from the campus Student Health and Psychological Center addressed an array of questions along with what became the pivotal inquiry, “Why was nonlethal force not used to subdue the student.”

“This is a homicide investigation,” Morales responded. “I can’t answer a lot of your questions, but what I can promise you is that we will get to the bottom of this tragedy.”

He said San Bernardino is conducting a full investigation along with the District Attorney’s office. “But we won’t stop at that.” We will pay for a separate investigation into Williams’ death.

“I’ve been personally in touch with Mr. William’s family and assured them that we won’t stop until we get every detail.”

Williams’ family released a statement late Tuesday confirming that the man was bipolar and enrolled as a disabled student when he was killed.

The statement, written by the older sister of 38-year-old Bartholomew Williams, also said the dead man received his mental health counseling and medications through the university’s student health services.

The sister, 43-year-old Portia Mount, said her family was disturbed by the mischaracterization of her brother as a “monster” by the university and police.

“We want to make sure that all of the facts are made very clear to the public,” Mount told The Los Angeles Times. “We really want to ensure that police are properly trained in dealing with people with mental disabilities and that they are properly trained to use non-lethal force to subdue an individual.”

“I don’t believe the police acted in a way designed to preserve my brother’s life,” she said.

Eddie Jones, president of the Los Angeles Civil Rights Association, called on the San Bernardino County District Attorney's Office to fast-track its investigation. "We are interested to knowing why lethal force was used," Jones said.

Jones said he believes that if campus officers had access to Tasers, they may have been able to take Williams into custody without the incident ending in his death. He also voiced concerns about two prior encounters that police had with Williams earlier in the day.

"If they had two encounters with him earlier, they were aware something was wrong," said Jones.

No details on those prior incidents were made available. Cal State officials referred media requests to the San Bernardino Police Department, which is conducting the investigation.

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