An Ohio law born out of a Clark County tragedy is intended to better inform law enforcement about individuals with mental illnesses and experts said it has improved public safety.
In the two years since the Deputy Suzanne Hopper Act went into effect, every person with a mental illness who has been dealt with by an Ohio court — whether found not guilty by reason of insanity, found incompetent to stand trial or ordered into mental health treatment by a judge — has also had their information entered into the FBI’s national law enforcement database.
That information is then readily accessible by officers so they better understand the people they encounter on the job.
The law is named after Clark County Deputy Suzanne Waughtel Hopper, a 12-year veteran of the department when she was shot and killed at the Enon Beach Campground on Jan. 1, 2011, by a man with a history of mental illness and violent encounters.
Michael Ferryman had previously been in a shootout with law enforcement in Morgan County in 2001. He’d been found not guilty by reason of insanity and was supposed to be under supervision. But Hopper and the others responding to a call about shots fired at a neighboring camper didn’t know any of that information.
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Hopper was taking photos of the crime scene when Ferryman ambushed her. He pointed a shotgun at her from inside his trailer and shot her without saying a word. He then engaged in an hours-long standoff in which German Twp. Police Officer Jeremy Blum was shot and wounded. Ferryman was fatally shot.
”He was an individual who had done this exact same thing in this exact same trailer years before in Morgan County,” Clark County Sheriff Gene Kelly said. “He was released and he was supposed to have supervision, but the supervision failed. And we were never notified that he was even in Clark County.”
The ‘big if’
In the five years since her death, Kelly and all who worked with Hopper have wrestled with “the big if.”
“If Suzanne would have had that information that this guy is next door, not guilty by reason of insanity, and he has a history of violence, she probably wouldn’t have exposed herself like that,” Kelly said.
In the wake of Hopper’s death, Republican state Sens. Chris Widener of Springfield and Bill Beagle of Tipp City sponsored the bill. It was signed by Gov. John Kasich in June 2013 and went into effect Jan. 1, 2014.
The Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services can’t provide an exact number of people who have been reported to the national database since then, according to Eric Wandersleben, director of media relations and outreach.
The department estimates about 450 people are on conditional release from mental health treatment in Ohio right now who should have been reported if all judges and law enforcement agencies followed the law, he said.
The state doesn’t track the number of people ordered to undergo mental health evaluations, which would also qualify them for reporting under the Hopper Law.
In Clark County, three people are currently flagged in the database, Kelly said.
Fellow deputies said Hopper was passionate about officer safety and would have liked to see a law like this in place.
“Knowing her and what she was about and with her own personal story, I think that she would be very proud of the work that her fellow deputies are doing and the way that we’re training our new deputies,” Kelly said.
At least one local officer has reported a positive experience thanks to the Hopper Act.
Clark County Sheriff’s Deputy Erica Barga was an officer with the Tremont City Police Department in August 2014 when she was patrolling and a man flagged her down with some questions.
In running the man’s name through the FBI database, she saw that he’d been entered under the Hopper Act.
“At the time I didn’t know what the Suzanne Hopper Act was,” she said.
She spoke with another officer on the phone who explained it meant the man had a history of mental illness. He’d been entered into the database by the Vandalia Municipal Court, where he’d been charged with attempted aggravated menacing.
Having that information allowed Barga to deal with the man’s questions while feeling more secure in knowing his history, she said.
“It just gives us insight into who we’re dealing with,” Tremont City Police Chief Don Roberts said.
Barga even printed out the law and gave it to her fellow officers so they could all be better educated about it.
The Hopper Act wasn’t retroactive, meaning only people adjudicated after the law went into effect are required to be reported.
But some individuals who were previously committed to mental health facilities and recently released have been added to the database.
A 29-year-old Springfield man who was charged with felonious assault for an attack on a family member but found not guilty by reason of insanity in 2011 was added following his conditional release from Twin Valley Behavioral Healthcare in Columbus.
Police can now see his history and his current address in Springfield when searching the database.
The law also has fostered communication, local mental health professionals said.
It has increased collaboration with clients, their families, law enforcement and service agencies, according to Greta Meyer, director of prevention and community engagement for the Mental Health and Recovery Board of Clark, Greene and Madison Counties.
“There’s a lot of discussion to help clients be successful as much as possible,” she said. “It’s an awful tragedy and it was a terrible situation and there are lasting effects in the community from that, but if we can say something positive it would be just working more collaboratively among all of these agencies.”
The board’s forensic monitor has also reported increased face-to-face meetings with all parties involved in mental health court cases, and increased scrutiny over the transfer or movement of clients from one jurisdiction to another, according to Roselin Runnels, director of programs and communication for the recovery board.
The Tri-County Board of Recovery and Mental Health Services, which serves Darke, Shelby and Miami counties, got to work in advance of the law’s passage to implement internal notification forms so information on any clients meeting the Hopper Act criteria could be easily shared.
“We’ve only had a handful (of cases),” said Jodi Long, director of clinical services and evaluation for the board. “We have used it very successfully.”
Training for law enforcement on interacting with individuals with mental illnesses has also increased since Hopper’s death five years ago this week.
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s task force recommendations in the wake of police shootings in Beavercreek and Cleveland require more training hours for all Ohio officers, including dealing with people with mental health issues.
“This entire 2015 will go down as, I believe, a year when law enforcement really did change,” Kelly said, referring to the number of high profile police shooting incidents.
He’s proud of the way his deputies have handled themselves in recent run-ins with individuals possibly having mental health problems.
“I can’t tell you how many times we’ve been able to talk to individuals. I believe in this (crisis intervention) training,” Kelly said.
More law enforcement officers have been participating in the week-long crisis intervention team training the recovery board offers, Meyer said. It graduated its largest class — 45 officers — this fall.
Officers learn how a mental health crisis is different than a normal call they might respond to.
“It’s about safely de-escalating those situations,” Meyer said.
Kelly also wants to invest in a next generation 9-1-1 dispatch center to enhance the way officers in the field get information.
“Everyday we deal with people in crisis, in distress. We many times are dealing with people who are using alcohol and drugs, so they’re not thinking clearly. And so every day is a challenge to make sure that everybody comes in and goes home,” Kelly said. “If we get a call at any one of these (Hopper Act) addresses listed, the dispatcher can tell them right away, instead of one person, it might be a three-person call, depending on what we’re going there for.”
Impact on gun accessibility
Ohio doesn’t require all mental health records that would prohibit someone from buying a gun to be reported to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
The Hopper Act, while not created with the intention of improving that reporting, has resulted in more mental health records being available through that database.
When a law enforcement agency enters Hopper Act information into the FBI’s supervised release file as required by the law, Kelly said, it becomes accessible through the background check system as well.
Ferryman had multiple weapons in his camper the day he shot Hopper. The shotgun he used was purchased by his girlfriend’s father at her request. Maria Blessing was sentenced to five years in prison after admitting she knew Ferryman was prohibited from having a gun.
Blessing is incarcerated at the Ohio Reformatory for Women and is scheduled for release in July.
“(Her father) passed a background check, but then gave it to a guy who wasn’t supposed to have a gun,” Kelly said.
“Everything that we can do to prevent people like this from having weapons, will help, but as we see everyday — in San Bernadino, Calif., they got their brother-in-law to buy the guns,” Kelly said.
In Ferryman’s case, he had the gun given to him and two other weapons he claimed he bought those at flea markets, Kelly said.
“It’s the law abiding citizens, they’re going through all the hoops. It’s the other people who are breaking into houses and cars and anything else and stealing them, trading them,” Kelly said.
The Hopper Act is a step in the right direction, said Ari Freilich, staff attorney for the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
“Federal law is clear about which mental health records prohibit a person … from being able to purchase or possess a firearm, but the FBI’s background check database is only as good as the records provided to it,” he said.