There is little traffic on Scharell Houston’s tree-lined street in north St. Louis County. It’s the kind of place where neighbors know each other, not one — she said — where someone would expect to see a suspect slip past police and steal their patrol car. But that is exactly what happened Sunday afternoon.
“I have been out here for five years now and yeah this is a first,” she said vigorously nodding her head. “The first.”
Houston said a woman was walking barefoot down Capehart Drive, reportedly following some neighborhood kids from a market about half a mile away. Then, Houston said, the woman started following her.
“She tried to follow me into my house. So once I realized that, I pushed off the front porch and said, ‘You got to go back to where you came from,'” Houston said.
North County Police Cooperative officers got a call about a woman suffering from mental issues and possible substance abuse around 1 p.m.
Houston said the officers spent 10 to 20 minutes talking with the woman, telling her they were not arresting her but needed information to take her home.
In just a few moments, everything changed.
“She just took off running up the street like she was going to take off running, but then she made a quick U-turn and just hopped into the police car and just took off,” Houston said.
Houston said police tried to stop the woman but she was able to drive up the hill where she hit a tree and bailed from the driver’s seat. For the next few seconds, the car coasts backward before crashing into a second tree.
A cellphone video posted online shows the whole encounter, while that second tree holds evidence of its own. Twenty-four hours later, there are still paint chips hanging in the tree bark and broken plastic shards on the ground.
But Houston said that she witnessed the best-case scenario.
“I hate that it ended that way, but it could have been worse,” she said. “I’m glad that the police were able to be kind, and they were very patient with the lady. I hate that he lost a squad car behind it, but he was very patient with her.”
“When the citizens say ‘Hey listen, their response was probably the best they could do,’ that certainly makes us feel good knowing it,” North County Police Cooperative Major Ron Martin said.
Martin said the department has responded to 26 crisis intervention calls so far this year. The vast majority — roughly 75%, Martin estimated — end with a person being hospitalized for treatment. Another 15%, Martin said, are solved on the spot with the proper medication. Martin said the remaining cases are solved by friends or family members who come into the fold and help out.
He said their police officers are doing the best they can to assess each delicate situation.
“Ninety percent of our uniformed officers are all CIT trained. They are crisis intervention trained where they can use that training to try to effect what needs to happen when this situation arises,” he said.
Houston said she goes home appreciative that the tense suspense caught on camera didn’t end have a more dramatic ending.
“If she was walking around trying to get into people’s car doors or into their houses, ain’t no telling how the next person would have reacted,” she said. “I’m just glad that they were able to get her some medical attention because I know she needed medical attention.”
The woman involved is being treated at a local hospital. She will be charged with stealing a motor vehicle and 1st-degree property damage, though Martin says it’s possible she would be eligible for some of the county’s diversion programs.