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Public defender asks to drop Florida school massacre suspect

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — The public defenders for the Parkland school massacre defendant unexpectedly asked to withdraw from the case Wednesday, saying the 20-year-old man will soon inherit nearly a half-million dollars and no longer qualify for free legal representation.

The Broward County Public Defender’s Office filed the unexpected notice late Wednesday, saying Nikolas Cruz is set to receive more than $432,000 shortly from his late mother’s life insurance policy. Under state law, the public defender can only represent defendants who cannot afford private attorneys.

Cruz is charged with 17 counts of first-degree murder and 17 counts of attempted murder arising from the Feb. 14, 2017, shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The former Stoneman Douglas student faces a possible death sentence.

Public Defender Howard Finkelstein and his chief assistant, Gordon Weekes, said their office learned about the insurance policy this week. At a court hearing last year, their office had said the amount was likely to be about $30,000, too little to hire a private attorney.

“By statute, we can only represent the poor and indigent,” Weekes told The Associated Press by phone Wednesday. “We are asking to withdraw from the case because the defendant is no longer poor.”

But Cruz may not get the money. It is likely that the victims’ families who are suing Cruz will claim the money should go to them and judges will have to determine who ultimately receives it.

Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer, who is presiding over the criminal case, has not set a hearing on the public defenders’ withdrawal motion and she might require them to stay on until that is settled.

David Brill, an attorney representing the father of victim Meadow Pollack in a lawsuit against Cruz and others, said Wednesday that he is exploring his options. Other attorneys representing families and victims did not immediately respond to emails seeking their comments.

Weekes said that his office cannot help Cruz hire a private criminal defense attorney nor can it advise him what to do with the money. It is also unclear how Cruz would access the money from jail.

Cruz has said that he would prefer any money he received from his mother’s estate or insurance go to the victims and their families. Lynda Cruz died of pneumonia in November 2017, three months before the shooting, leaving behind Cruz and his younger brother, Zachary. Their father died when they were young, not long after they were adopted.

The mother had a tumultuous relationship with her sons, calling police dozens of times over the years to say they had been verbally abusive or had damaged her property. Zachary and other family members have said Nikolas Cruz sometimes hit his mother and once threatened her with a gun, but she never reported that. She went with him to buy a gun shortly after he turned 18, but with a caveat.

A gun store employee told investigators after the shooting that he had received a call from Linda Cruz the day after the 2017 purchase. She asked him not to release the gun to him after the three-day waiting period if she wasn’t there. When he pressed her on why, she hesitated and then said he was young and she wanted him to be safe.

Cruz’s trial is scheduled to begin early next year. Finkelstein said it is too early to say whether this new development would delay the trial, “but it certainly won’t speed it up.” His office has estimated that more than a million documents have been generated in the case, which would have to be transferred to a new attorney.

Cruz has pleaded not guilty though Finkelstein has said he would plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. They declined comment Wednesday.

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Hamilton County’s ‘Wellness Unit’ part of nationwide effort to improve mental health among officers

NOBLESVILLE, Ind. (WISH) — An initiative to improve employee well-being at the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office is among a spate of efforts across the nation to address mental health concerns among officers.

Sheriff Dennis Quakenbush announced the department’s new “Wellness Unit”  — devoted to the physical, mental and spiritual health of its deputies, correctional officers and civilian employees — Friday in a Facebook post.

“Our guys really care about the public,” he said Monday in an interview with News 8. “When you see somebody who’s injured or victimized, it really impacts us… We’re only human.”

The Wellness Unit launched in January with funding approved by county council members and commissioners.

Appointments are held off-site at undisclosed locations to protect the privacy of employees. Supervisors are not briefed on which employees seek counseling or what they discuss during sessions.

Information gathered during counseling sessions will not be used to demote or discipline employees, and will only be disclosed if required by law, including when somebody poses an immediate danger to themselves or others.

The department’s entire staff will receive training related to suicide prevention, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, critical incidents, addiction, mindfulness and officer wellness, the sheriff said.

Nearly 1 in 4 police officers has thoughts of suicide at some point in their life, according to the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI); the suicide rate for police officers is four times higher than the rate for firefighters.

Years of daily exposure to stress, trauma and tragedy can have other devastating consequences if appropriate coping skills are not developed, according to Susan Sherer-Vincent, a licensed clinical social worker, certified alcoholism counselor and licensed marriage and family therapist involved in launching the Wellness Unit.

“Think of the hurricanes that come in, in Florida, and think of the palm trees where they bend,” she explained. “But then, what happens afterwards? They go back up. That’s called resilience. We want our officers to bend, not break.”

Until approximately 3 to 5 years ago, officers were often conditioned to “pull [themselves] up by the bootstraps and go to the next call” instead of addressing personal struggles, Sherer-Vincent said.

Cultivating resiliency can be difficult within a law enforcement culture that equates mental health challenges with “weakness,” she said.

“[Officers] are trained to have the warrior mentality,” Sherer-Vincent told News 8. “Truly, they would have been made fun of [in the past for seeking counseling].”

She compared strong, silent officers with underdeveloped coping skills to California’s famed redwood trees.

“They’re pretty sturdy. But what would happen if you took an ax and hit those every single day, day after day, for years? They would eventually fall,” she said.

Quakenbush credits his wife, church and non-law enforcement friends with providing “a really good support system.”

“But sometimes, you need a professional,” he said, urging employees to “talk through” negative emotions instead of turning to alcohol and other substances for temporary relief.

Several internal cases that resulted in disciplinary action during his year-long tenure as sheriff may have been prevented with wellness-focused intervention, Quakenbush said.

He was unable to comment on personnel matters. 

Sources within the department indicated some of the cases involved employees with substance abuse issues that had escalated over time, possibly as a result of work-related stress that had gone unaddressed. 

“I wouldn’t say that [disciplinary action] was happening often,” Quakenbush told News 8. “But seeing it happen and knowing that we probably could have done something about it made it impactful and something that we wanted to make a priority.”

Hamilton County announced its Wellness Unit days after New York City police officials revealed plans to hire a team of psychologists to combat a spike in officer suicides.

On Feb. 13, Indianapolis police officials said they planned to swear in the department’s first full-time therapy dog by the end of March.

  • FIND SUPPORT: Learn more about supporting law enforcement wellness on NAMI.org

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