Shirley Antwine’s son had been arrested by Oklahoma City police at least 15 times when she called for their help again in the summer of 2021.
Though they previously had shocked him with a Taser for resisting arrest, they usually took him to the hospital for treatment before booking him into one of the nation’s deadliest jails. Even that seemed like a safer option than letting the influence of drugs and symptoms of schizophrenia fester.
Oklahoma City Police Sgt. Robert Burton loaded Antwine’s son into the back of his cruiser on Aug. 4, 2021. But, this time, Burton didn’t take him to a hospital or to jail. Instead, Burton left him stranded on the side of Sooner Road surrounded by an overgrown field and abandoned buildings.
Within five minutes, Ernest Antwine died after stepping in front of a silver Nissan pickup.
Now, Shirley Antwine is suing the driver of the truck that killed her son and the officer who drove him beyond Oklahoma City Police jurisdiction, and left him alone on the side of a four-lane road with no sidewalks and no shoulder to provide a buffer from the steady stream of traffic.
Law enforcement statewide are responding to mental health emergencies more than ever. Public scrutiny fell on the state’s largest police force in recent years after Oklahoma City officers shot and killed Bennie Edwards, a 60-year-old homeless man with a history of mental illness, and Daniel Hobbs, a 34-year-old father who told the officer he was mentally ill moments before he was fatally shot. Those and other deadly and violent interactions prompted questions about who should answer those calls, and who shouldn’t.
A federal investigation into Oklahoma City police response to people in crisis is underway, part of a probe the U.S. Department of Justice launched in November into Oklahoma’s mental health care.
More officers are being trained in crisis intervention, a weeklong class teaching law enforcement best practices for responding to people with mental illness and substance abuse disorders. The officer who killed Hobbs and two officers that responded to Antwine were trained in crisis intervention. A program launched in 2022 pairs counselors with police to answer these calls. But the department’s efforts cannot keep up with rising crisis calls.
Mental health calls have doubled at the department in the past decade peaking at more than 21,000 calls in 2021, up from about 10,000 in 2013, according to data from the department. The calls, which include people experiencing suicidal thoughts or hallucinations, who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol and those sleeping in homeless camps, dropped in 2022 to about 18,700.
All Oklahoma City officers are responding to those calls, which are underreported. Shirley Antwine’s call, for instance, wasn’t classified by the department as a mental health call, but a domestic disturbance.
A Familiar Scenario
Online posts from friends and family remembered Ernest, or Ernie, Antwine for his basketball skills and ability to make others laugh. A photo of him with his daughters is posted to the top of a website raising money for his memorial service.
On that Wednesday afternoon in August, Antwine was high on his mother’s front porch banging on the door with a stick when she called for help, according to court documents.
There was a warrant for Antwine’s arrest from a previous drug charge when Burton and officer Rebecca Fry went to his mother’s home in northeast Oklahoma City. Police had arrested Antwine there twice in the previous eight months. Both times he was under the influence of drugs, refused to leave and fought with officers, according to arrest reports. And both times, officers took Antwine to a hospital for treatment before he was booked into jail.
That’s standard procedure when someone is experiencing psychosis, said Jeffery Pierce, a retired Oklahoma City Police commander who led the department’s crisis intervention team. “The last thing you want is to take them to the jail without being checked out and then they die,” Pierce said.
But Burton did not arrest the 42-year-old. And he did not place Antwine under an emergency order of detention, commonly used to detain someone who has not broken the law but who is deemed a danger to themselves or others.
Burton told Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Deputy Whitton White who interviewed him after the fatal crash that he “forcefully removed” Antwine from the front porch of his mother’s home and then dropped him off in “no man’s land,” according to the deputy’s incident report.
According to the lawsuit, Burton was on his way to a job interview. There is no mention of the job interview in a motion filed by Burton’s attorney to dismiss the lawsuit.
Broken glass, empty cigarette cartons and liquor bottles dot the stretch of Sooner Road between Northeast 23rd Street and Northeast 10th Street where Antwine was abandoned. Rusted tanks from an old pipeline operation sit near a railyard. A quarter mile south is a liquor store, smoke shop and gas station.
According to Burton’s motion to dismiss, Burton removed Antwine from his mother’s home in order to diffuse the situation and released him near Northeast 10th Street and Sooner Road.
Pierce said though police routinely transport someone to a requested location as a way to diffuse a volatile situation, it’s up to the officer to determine if the location is safe and whether the person’s condition justifies leaving them alone.
According to White’s report, Burton told the deputy he knew that Antwine was homeless and struggling with mental health and addiction.
Ralph Caruthers was driving a cement truck south on Sooner Road just after 2 p.m. that day in August 2021 when he noticed a shirtless, disoriented man standing near the edge of the road. Caruthers said after he passed the man, he looked in his passenger-side mirror and saw him step onto the street in front of a pickup. Caruthers and truck driver, Robert Dunn, ran to Antwine’s aid but he was already gone, Caruthers said. They called 911 and Oklahoma County Sheriff deputies responded.
Antwine died of multiple blunt force injuries, according to a State Medical Examiner’s report. Acute phencyclidine — or PCP — toxicity contributed to his death, according to the report.
A Troubled Past
When deputies told her that her son was dead, Shirley Antwine asked if he was in the Oklahoma County jail, according to White’s report. After White told her no, she asked if “those officers knew his condition, why did they leave him alone?,” the report states.
Officers Burton and Fry did not respond to Oklahoma Watch’s requests for an interview. Both still work for the department.
The Oklahoma City Police Department has no incident report related to officers’ response to Antwine, spokeswoman Valerie Littlejohn said. Officers are required to submit an incident report only if an arrest is made, she said. Neither officer submitted a report, she said.
At the time of publication, Littlejohn did not know whether officers’ response had been investigated internally or whether any body camera footage existed.
Antwine was entangled in the criminal justice system for more than 20 years. He served nearly 10 years in prison between 2006 and 2019 for drug charges, rape and forcible sodomy, according to Oklahoma Department of Corrections records. Between 2000 and 2021, Oklahoma City police officers arrested Ernest Antwine 15 times for possession of drugs, domestic abuse and outstanding warrants, department records show.
In March 2014, officers shocked Ernest Antwine with a stun gun when he fought officers who were trying to handcuff him after he refused to leave the house, according to an arrest report. Ernest Antwine was high on drugs, delusional and out of touch with reality, according to the report. Officers took Ernest Antwine to the hospital for treatment before he was booked into jail, according to the report.
Whitney Bryen is an investigative reporter at Oklahoma Watch covering vulnerable populations. Her recent investigations focus on mental health and substance abuse, criminal justice, domestic violence and nursing homes. Contact her at (405) 201-6057 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @SoonerReporter.