Police said a Jacksonville man known to suffer from mental health issues including being suicidal was armed with a loaded 9mm handgun and approaching officers and civilians Friday when shot by a Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office sergeant on the Wonderwood Bridge near Mayport.
Steven James Smith, 32, was shot twice by Sgt. Andrew Will, a nine-year Sheriff’s Office veteran, about 5:15 p.m. on the bridge spanning the Intracoastal Waterway following a series of escalating incidents including ramming another motorist’s car, Assistant Chief Scott Dingee of the Sheriff’s Office said during a news conference Saturday morning.
Dingee said Smith is a military veteran whose family previously told police suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder exacerbated annually by Veterans Day, which is next Saturday.
Will fired twice with his department-issued 9mm handgun — striking Smith in the chest and arm. Smith remained hospitalized Saturday after undergoing surgery Friday night. His wounds didn’t appear to be life-threatening, Dingee said.
Dingee said Will has no prior officer-involved shootings. According to Sheriff’s Office procedures, Will has been placed on administrative leave as the shooting is investigated. Dingee said they expect to interview Will sometime next week.
The case is the 10th officer-involved shooting for the Sheriff’s Office this year, records show.
No officers nor civilians were injured in the shooting that happened on the east side of the bridge while about 200 cars were passing over the structure, he said.
“There were a lot of people present. A lot of potential for additional injuries, which factored into the officer making that decision to fire when Mr. Smith got out with that handgun,” Dingee said.
Dingee said investigators recovered the handgun Smith had in his hands when shot. Smith legally owned the handgun, but his concealed weapons permit previously had been suspended because of another mental health incident, said Dingee, who didn’t detail the circumstances of the past situation.
While being taken to the hospital, Smith told emergency medical personnel “about wishing to die. That he was guilty and he wanted to die,” Dingee said.
Dingee said there is no police body camera video of the shooting because none of the officers present had them. Nor are investigators aware of any surveillance camera video of the incident, he said.
Dingee said officers responding to the bridge were aware Smith has a history of violent confrontations with police, and was known to carry a firearm at times.
Police are consulting with the Office of State Attorney Melissa Nelson regarding potential charges against Smith. However, no charges relating to Friday’s incident had been filed as of Saturday, Dingee said.
“Right now, we want to make sure he gets the mental health care that he needs …At this time, we’ve asked that he be given a mental health evaluation under the Baker Act standards,” Dingee said. “We appreciate his service as a military member, and understand that military members who do go and serve their country can have mental health issues as a result.”
Dingee said that will be a factor when police talk to the State Attorney’s Office, which is conducting its own investigation of the shooting, about potential charges against Smith.
Jacksonville police officers, he said, undergo two major training classes to recognize and deal with people will mental illness. Currently, all personnel are undergoing a full day training session, Dingee said.
Saying witnesses were still being interviewed, Dingee declined comment about whether that training was employed by officers dealing with Smith on Friday.
Based on detectives’ interviews with Smith’s wife as well as civilian and police witnesses on the bridge, Dingee gave the following chronology of events leading up to the shooting.
His wife told police Smith has been dealing with mental health issues rooted in his past military service. He has more difficulty with it around Veterans Day each year. Police didn’t say what branch of the service, or release other information about Smith’s military background.
Two days ago, Smith began displaying more symptoms of mental health problems and they progressively got worse, she told police.
Friday afternoon, Smith “became very irritable, confrontational” and she knows he owns a firearm,” she told officers.
“She became concerned for her own safety and barricaded herself in her bedroom,” Dingee said. “After barricading the bedroom door, she actually escaped through a window and went to a neighbor’s house for assistance.”
As she was fleeing, Smith left his residence — which police records list as being in the 1300 block of Blue Eagle Way East — in a gray Ford Explorer and began to drive recklessly through his neighborhood.
At about 4:41 p.m., Jacksonville police received two separate 911 calls from the 12000 block of Nesting Eagles Way reporting a sport utility vehicle matching the one being driven by Smith traveling recklessly and striking one vehicle, a mailbox, some shrubbery and a light pole, Dingee said.
As officers were en route to that incident, police got a call from a neighbor of Smith’s wife who reported that she had fled her home because she feared for her safety.
“All of the officers who were responding, recognized that these were all related. They recognized the address given for where Mr. Smith lives. They recognized from a previous law enforcement incident that he had been known to be suicidal in the past, that he had been known to violent with police and that he has been known to be armed at times,” Dingee said.
On Sept. 18, Jacksonville police arrested Smith on a domestic battery charge after his wife reported during an argument he had flown into a rage, was throwing around furniture and started beating her. She told police at that time, she got a gun and fired one shot into the ceiling, which resulted in Smith fleeing, according to a police report.
Officers reported Smith’s wife had bruises and scratches on her upper body. Smith was taken into custody after driving his car into a neighbor’s yard. He denied beating his wife, the report states.
Because of that incident, police had listed Smith’s address as a place of potential danger to officers, Dingee said.
Dingee said about 4:47 p.m. Friday, police received a call reporting a crash with injuries on the Wonderwood Bridge involving a SUV matching Smith’s Explorer.
Two passing motorists stopped to try to help Smith, who was still at the wheel of the wrecked Explorer. Smith didn’t respond to them when they tried to talk to him, but as officers arrived, he put the SUV in reverse and rammed a car belonging to one of the witnesses trying to help him.
Police used their cars to block in Smith’s Explorer. They ordered the civilians to back away from the SUV. Police then used a public address system to order Smith to get out of the Explorer. Officers were concerned that he was armed and if they approached him, there would be a confrontation, Dingee said.
At 5:14 p.m., Smith got out of the SUV with the semiautomatic pistol in his hand.
“According to witnesses, Mr. Smith kept the gun in front of his body in an upward direction but then began to approach the officers with that gun being displayed,” Dingee said. Sgt. Will then shot Smith, who fell to the ground.
Dingee said detectives interviewed several witnesses at the scene including five civilians, a Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department employee, four Jacksonville police officers and another sergeant.
Duval County court records show Smith faced charges of aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer-firefighter, battery on a law enforcement officer-firefighter-medical personnel, which are felonies, and a misdemeanor charge of domestic battery by a touch or strike. The charges stemmed from the September incident, according to the records.
While in jail following his Sept. 18 arrest, Smith apparently tried to hang himself in his cell. Corrections officers used pepper spray to subdue him, then placed him in a restraint chair for about 90 minutes, according to a police report detailing the incident
On Oct. 17, the State Attorney’s Office referred Smith to the Veterans Court diversion program in the case, the records show.
Teresa Stepzinski: (904) 359-4075
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