EXCLUSIVE: Video shows cops shooting homeless woman; HPD pays her $195K

EXCLUSIVE VIDEO: Police shooting of homeless woman results in $195K payout
Published: May. 16, 2014 at 9:08 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A Hawaii News Now investigation obtained dramatic video of a mentally ill homeless woman just moments before police shot her with a gun and Taser five years ago, a case that resulted in an excessive force ruling against the city and raises questions about how police handle the mentally ill on the streets.

The video from a police officer's Taser gun, shows Yvonne Arsisto backing away from at least three police officers at the corner of King Street and Kalakaua Avenue after midnight on April 3, 2009.

"I never do nothing to nobody," Arsisto told officers in the video

"Drop the weapon," shouted a police officer.

She was holding thin metal pipe and a hot dog skewer in her left hand.

On the video, one officer can be heard threatening to shock her with 50,000 volts of electricity.

Arsisto: Why are you harassing me? I didn't do nothing to nobody.

Police officer: (unintelligible)

Arsisto: I did not do nothing to nobody.

Police officer: We get 50 thousand volts right now.

Arsisto: You just picking on me.

Police officer: We're not picking on nobody.  We like make sure nobody else gets hurt.

Arsisto: Nobody will get hurt because everybody knows me.

Police officer: Well then, put that away.

The officers told their superiors that she threatened them with two weapons.

"A metal rod about 14 inches long and metal pick about 18 inches long, she lunged at them, one officer Tased her, and the other officer shot her," then-HPD Major Frank Fujii told reporters after the shooting on April 3, 2009.

The video does not show what happened in the seconds immediately before the shooting but it does show the officers shocking her with a Taser and shooting her with a gun in the stomach.

Arsisto spent three weeks in the hospital recovering from her wounds.

"Clearly mentally ill, just shot down on the street," said attorney Michael Green filed an excessive force lawsuit on Arsisto's behalf against the city.

"You take this video and you put in the law books where it says excessive force.  It's terrible," Green said.

The day of the shooting back in 2009, a witness said he didn't see Arsisto threatening officers.

"Both hands were hanging at her side.  I didn't see nothing come up like she was going to hit somebody.  She just walked straight toward the officers.  And I heard two shots, two gunshots go off," said Richard Kahalewai, a homeless man who saw the incident.

Arsisto was charged with terroristic threatening, a felony, and the officers were listed as the victims.

In the excessive force lawsuit, an arbitrator who saw the Taser video ruled the city was 65 percent negligent and Arsisto was 35 percent negligent for her own injuries, so the city paid her $195,357, plus her legal costs of $2,951.

The video showed Arsisto repeatedly answering "God said no" when the officers ordered her to drop her weapons, and you can hear one officer telling the other to shoot her with the stun gun.

Arsisto: She said no.

Police officer: Drop the weapons now.

Police officer: Shoot 'em already. Ready?  Put 'em down.

Police officer: (unintelligible)

Police officer: That's what I think, that's why I'm going try for the leg.

The police department will not comment on the specifics of the case or disclose whether any of the officers involved were disciplined.

The two officers sued in the excessive force lawsuit are still on the force, an HPD spokeswoman said.

HPD Psychologist Michael Christopher said beginning two years before Arsisto was shot, police officers began receiving annual training about dealing with various types of people in crisis, from those who are psychotic to the suicidal.

"It takes a lot of experience and a lot of training to learn to recognize these situations.  We're getting better at it, but we still have a long way to go," Christopher said.

Police charged Arsisto with terroristic threatening, claiming that the police officers were her victims. HPD sent the case to the city prosecutor's office, which has continuing pursuing it over five years and won't comment on any details.

After spending nearly four years at the state mental hospital, she's back living on the streets in the downtown area.

A police officer gave her a ticket in March for having a shopping cart at Mother Waldron Park in Kakaako but she was not arrested on the $11,000 warrant in her terroristic threatening case.

Arsisto's lawyer said prosecuting her after all that's happened is wrong.

"Who's looking at these tapes?  I mean, Stevie Wonder?  You look at the case, you see what happened.  Get out of here, with this stuff you want to prosecute her," Green said.

Marya Grambs, the executive director of Mental Health America of Hawaii, was outraged Arsisto still faces prosecution.

"Obviously that's absurd.  And I can't imagine they're going to go through with it," said Grambs, who reviewed the video footage of the event.

Grambs said it's clear the officers didn't understand how to deal with mentally ill people.

"You de-escalate rather than escalate. And there are techniques to de-escalate.  And a Taser and a gun are not them.  And yelling at the person over and over again is not the way to do it," Grambs said.

Scott Wall is the vice president of the Community Alliance for Mental Health.

"Anybody could see she wasn't threatening a soul, and she was, at the moment, psychotic," Wall said.

Police officers are taught about dealing with the mentally ill when they are recruits and in recurring annual training.

"A big part of it is training police officers to be aware of their own emotions to regulate their emotions to calm themselves, which has a calming effect on the other person," said Christopher, who heads the HPD's efforts to deal with the mentally ill.

He said police are taught as recruits, and in recurring training, about how to deal with a mentally ill person who may be having an episode.  For instance, he said, officers should change their tone of voice, word choice, and back up instead of moving forward toward a person who's encountering a severe mental problem.

Christopher said police psychologists are available 24 hours a day for officers to call and those psychologists can authorize a person to be sent to a hospital against their will for mental evaluation.

"The goal is to divert as many people out of the criminal justice system so that we don't clog up the courts with misdemeanor crimes that are the result of untreated mental illness," Christopher said.

Christopher said mentally ill people are diverted from the cellblock to a hospital about 85 percent of the time police officers call in a psychologist for consultation.  That amounts to roughly 3,500 cases in 2012, the last year for which figures are available.

HPD said only about three percent of those cases involve arresting the mentally ill person for a crime.

The state Department of Health provides up to $605,000 a year to HPD to fund psychologists and a psychiatric technician.  The state funding also pays for four psychiatric nurses who evaluate suspects in HPD's main cellblock, Christopher said.  The department plans to add more nurses to cellblock in the coming year, he said.

(Special Projects Producer Daryl Huff contributed to this report)

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