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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Wilmington police department explains chief’s interaction with mentally-distressed man near City Hall

Chief Donny Williams talks to a man who was soon determined to be mentally ill and not a public threat near City hall on Third Street Wednesday morning. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Wilmington Police Department)

WILMINGTON — When WPD Chief Donny Williams and fellow officers responded to a Wednesday morning call that a man was trying to ‘incite violence’ on Third Street near City Hall, Williams determined the man was not a threat before allowing him to leave the scene. This was done to avoid any sort of escalation, according to the department.

The WPD then put a BOLO (be on the look-out) — an unusual move in such a situation, according to a WPD spokesperson — to protect the safety of the man and anyone he may come into contact with.

The man, 56-year-old Oscar Pinilla, was eventually taken into custody by New Hanover Sheriff’s deputies at his home in New Hanover County outside of city limits, according to WPD Public Affairs Officer Linda Thompson.

RELATED: Wilmington police looking for man who tried to ‘incite violence’ at City Hall

Some in the community have questioned the WPD’s decision to allow Pinilla to leave the scene before issuing a series of Twitter messages urging people to avoid the area after “the driver just fled,” and to avoid any contact with Pinilla and to call 911 if he was spotted.

According to Thompson, Chief Williams and other responding officers determined that Pinilla was not trying to incite violence and “was only a danger to himself,” but did not know if Pinilla was armed.

“They saw a man who was in distress,” Thompson said.

Williams personally responded to the call and interacted with Pinilla while standing in the middle of Third Street. According to Thompson, no move was made to apprehend him when he pulled away, just as a member of the crisis team had arrived on the scene.

“That’s whey we were trying to talk to him, to calm him down,” Thompson said. “Unfortunately it didn’t work, but we didn’t see anyone in harm’s way … He didn’t commit any crimes, other than a possible minor traffic violation. Putting hands on him could have escalated the situation.”

She said the BOLO call was made for Pinilla’s personal safety because he “had talked about being suicidal potentially,” and the department wanted to get him the mental care he needed immediately. She said this was not a typical move for such a situation, and officers first consulted with their attorneys before making the decision.

According to Thompson, Chief Williams personally responded to the situation because he had first met Pinilla last Friday while driving through downtown Wilmington. Pinilla had commented on his vehicle before they had a positive conversation, Thompson said.

She said that establishing a personal connection when responding with individuals who are experiencing some kind of mental illness or distress is crucial, and the chief believes in “getting on the street with the troops,” regardless of his rank.

“He’s one of these police chiefs who doesn’t just believe in sitting in the office all day. He will actively get out there and help his officers. … He believes in helping people, and he has no problem engaging,” Thompson said.

But she also noted that Williams believes in a peaceful approach when confronting the mentally ill, and she questioned the role of armed police officers who could potentially cause further distress when responding to such situations.

“The way we treat the mentally ill; it’s another one of those tasks thrown at the feet of law enforcement to deal with, and it’s probably not the right place … What our society has done — and you see this nationwide — we have begun to treat mental illness like it’s a crime. We need to think how we transport and deal with the mentally ill,” Thompson said.

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