Officer de-escalates situation with mentally ill suspect who threatened leasing agent

Officer John Bellanti spoke with and calmed down suspect Terrence Dixon last month after police said Dixon tried to snap the neck of a leasing agent at his apartment complex


By Lyda Longa
The News-Journal

SOUTH DAYTONA, Fla. — At a time when police agencies around the country are training their troops to de-escalate confrontations with suspects rather than resort to deadly force, a rookie South Daytona officer did what came naturally when he arrested a mentally ill man.

For Officer John Bellanti — on the job only five months — speaking with and calming down suspect Terrence Dixon last month after police said Dixon tried to snap the neck of a leasing agent at his apartment complex was just a "normal conversation."

"I just talked to him like I talk to everybody else," the 26-year-old Bellanti said at South Daytona police headquarters. "I just treat people the way I would like to be treated."

It worked.

Charged with attempted murder, police say the 22-year-old Dixon tried to snap the neck of a leasing agent at the Marcell Garden Apartments on Feb. 8. Dixon walked into the leasing office that afternoon and told another employee that he wanted to kill someone. The employee called 9-1-1 and began explaining the situation to a sheriff's dispatcher.

Dixon became irritated with the dispatcher's questions to the employee and he began screaming and grabbed the other woman who worked in the leasing office, an arrest report states. He tried to stab her with his apartment key and when he realized that would not work, he yanked her by the hair and began thrashing her back and forth in an attempt to snap her neck, police said.

The other employee jumped on Dixon's back and began pummeling him with her fists, the report states. He let the woman go and then trashed the office, breaking flower pots, taking pictures down and throwing papers off desks, the report states.

When Bellanti and Sgt. Anthony Carfagno arrived on scene, Dixon was outside the office in the parking lot. The suspect threatened the sergeant, telling him he would break his legs and kill him, the report states. Then Bellanti stepped forward and began talking to Dixon.

The two men discussed college and other small talk. Bellanti spoke in a friendly tone, but was not condescending. When Dixon attempted to stand up, announcing that he was going to take the other officer's Taser, Bellanti remained calm and told Dixon to keep talking to him.

Dixon sat down and the two men kept chatting. When it came time to handcuff Dixon, the suspect stood up and put his hand behind his back. Bellanti told him he would not make the cuffs tight and as he was putting them on Dixon, asked the suspect twice if he was alright. Even after Dixon was handcuffed, Bellanti kept conversing with the suspect about vitamins and whey protein.

Police Chief Ron Wright said Bellanti's handling of the call was "impressive."

"I told John that I was very proud of him," Wright said. "It was just very impressive for me that a young officer was able to calm down this extremely violent individual."

Wright agreed that the actions taken by Bellanti were an example of de-escalation at its best. The chief said he plans to have de-escalation training for his officers.

"That's one of my goals," the chief said. "I want to make sure that we do whatever is the latest and greatest de-escalation tactics."

The first police department in the area to use de-escalation tactics was Daytona Beach police under former chief Mike Chitwood, who is now sheriff of Volusia County. In 2015, Chitwood was one of 15 police chiefs around the country and the only one from Florida, chosen to attend a de-escalation training seminar in Scotland. The invitation came from the Police Executive Research Forum, a law-enforcement think tank in Washington, D.C.

As sheriff, Chitwood also promised that his deputies would be trained in de-escalation tactics and that as a result, both his deputies and the suspects they come in contact with, would go home safe — or to jail in the case of the suspect — every day.

Bellanti said he is on board with de-escalation training; but for the policeman who is also in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, talking to people from all walks of life is something he said he learned in the military.

"I was a rifleman, basic infantry, and you're surrounded by people all the time, your brothers and sisters," Bellanti said. "You get to know people from different backgrounds. It's just being exposed to different people and how to talk to them."

As for his chat with Dixon, Bellanti downplayed it: "The conversation itself was just a normal conversation I would have with somebody. It was just a different kind of situation."

Dixon, who is being held at the Volusia County Branch Jail on $55,000 bail, was charged with attempted first-degree murder and criminal mischief.

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©2017 The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Fla.


McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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  2. Officer Safety
  3. Patrol Issues
  4. Mentally Ill

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