Naked City

Officer cleared in shooting of mentally ill woman

The U.S. Department of Justice last week cleared APD Officer John Coffey of any criminal wrongdoing, and he will not face federal prosecution on civil rights charges in connection with the June 11, 2002 fatal shooting of Sophia King. According to the DOJ, there was "insufficient evidence to support criminal charges" against Coffey, a 19-year veteran of the department.

Twenty-three-year-old King, a black Eastside resident with a history of schizophrenia, was shot and killed by Coffey as she chased, while threatening to stab, an employee of the Housing Authority of the city of Austin in the common area behind the Rosewood Courts apartments. The incident sparked an uproar, including allegations of racism leveled against Coffey and the APD by local NAACP head Nelson Linder and by Jim Harrington of the Texas Civil Rights Project, representing King's mother Brenda Elendu in a subsequent lawsuit. In the weeks that followed the shooting, the circumstances of the case were the subject of an intense scrutiny, placing Coffey's actions that day at the center of five separate investigations – by APD's Homicide and Internal Affairs units, by a Travis Co. grand jury, by an outside investigator hired at the urging of the Office of the Police Monitor's Citizen Review Panel (the first time the panel had urged an outside review), and finally, by the DOJ. Each investigation ultimately cleared Coffey of any wrongdoing. "Officer Coffey was placed in a tragic situation and was forced to fire his weapon to save the life of another individual," reads an APD press release. "This decision has forever changed his life and the lives of his family." In a separate press release, Harrington pointed out that Coffey's exoneration has no bearing on another investigation pending before the DOJ, after the TCRP and the Austin chapter of the NAACP last year asked the feds to investigate the alleged "pattern and practice of misconduct" and excessive use of force by officers against minorities, and to withhold federal funding from APD until it reforms its allegedly discriminatory practices. "Our effort from the very beginning has been to approach this very sad tragedy from a systemic viewpoint," Harrington said. "Coffey did what he did as a result of the police department's bad training and very poor procedures for dealing with people who have mental illness."

King had a history of schizophrenia, was living alone in the Rosewood Courts, was not receiving any ongoing mental health services to help control her illness, and had a history of being involved with disturbances that required police and mental health intervention. Nonetheless, Coffey has borne the brunt of the criticism for the shooting – and has found himself in the center of a more general debate over how police intervene in mental health cases, even though that circumstance is more directly related to cuts in funding for mental health services. (For more on the connection between mental health care and policing, see "Mental Health Care Meltdown," Dec. 20, 2002.) "Despite efforts of the dedicated mental health workers, each and every day Austin police officers are required to assume the role of mental health counselors, interacting with individuals whose mental illness seriously affects their ability to function safely," reads the APD release.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

civil rightspolice, Austin Police Department, APD, John Coffey, Sophia King, NAACP, mental health, Texas Civil Rights Project, TCRP, Jim Harrington, U.S. Department of Justice, Stan Knee

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