State troopers, misled by false court order, detained school principal for mental health check

Jim Cockrell, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Public Safety, speaks in Wasilla at a May 3, 2022, news conference. Cockrell has ordered an investigation after troopers mistakenly took a school principal into custody for a mental health exam. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

State troopers mistakenly took Alaska’s 2022 Principal of the Year into custody for a mental health examination last week after a family member presented troopers with a document they said was signed by a state judge.

That wasn’t true, and Troopers and the Alaska Court System confirmed the mistake Tuesday, six days after Colony High School Principal Mary Fulp posted a video of the incident and claimed that she was being detained because of her religious beliefs.

James Cockrell, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Public Safety, has ordered a full internal review of the incident, the department said.

“Based on the limited information we have been able to learn about this incident from the Alaska Court System it appears that we made a mistake by transporting the adult female for an evaluation. Our staff should have taken additional steps to verify the information presented by the complainant and the validity of the court order,” Cockrell said in a written statement. “We take full responsibility for this and want to assure the public that we are taking necessary steps to ensure that incidents like this never happen again. This type of situation is unacceptable, and you have my commitment that we will do better.”

After Anchorage’s KTUU-TV published a story about the video, Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, and Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, spoke in the state Legislature about the issue.

“The court did not issue any order to take Ms. Fulp into custody, or to detain her, or to have her undergo a hospitalization for any reason,” said Rebecca Koford, a spokesperson for the court system, in a Tuesday email responding to the KTUU story. “The actions by law enforcement in this instance were not undertaken or carried out pursuant to or as a result of any court order.”

Hours later, the Alaska State Troopers issued a written account of events on Jan. 18 that saw Fulp escorted to a Matanuska-Susitna Borough hospital for a mental health evaluation.

According to their account, troopers received a call Wednesday morning, requesting a welfare check on Fulp.

State law permits police and mental health experts to hold someone involuntarily if they are “likely to cause serious harm to self or others” immediately.

Troopers responded and determined that she didn’t meet the conditions for emergency mental health custody. Hours later, a second caller said they had a written order from a judge agreeing that Fulp should be taken into custody in order to have her mental health evaluated.

“Troopers observed that the document appeared to be signed by a judge and appeared to be valid,” the official account states.

An attorney familiar with the state’s mental health commitment procedures and unaffiliated with this case said that should have been a red flag.

Under the normal course of events, if a petitioner is seeking to involuntarily commit someone to custody on mental health grounds, the petitioner must submit evidence to a judge, who will seek the advice of a medical professional — assuming that the petitioner isn’t one themselves.

A third party interviews the person subject to the proposed order, then advises the judge. If the judge orders the person committed, the judge contacts public safety officials themselves. The petitioner isn’t involved.

Koford said she doesn’t have documents associated with what happened on the 18th, but “when there is an order, we send local law enforcement a request for transport, and that is what they use.”

In this case, “no request was sent,” Koford said.

On Friday, the Beacon, citing a tip that claimed the order was false, requested copies of the court order and was informed that state law holds those records confidential and the request “will likely be denied.”

According to the Troopers’ account, “On Friday, January 20, 2023, it was brought to the attention of the Alaska Department of Public Safety that the documents … presented to Troopers may not have been a court order authorizing the involuntary commitment of the adult female. DPS Commissioner Cockrell ordered a full review of the incident.”

The court system denied the Troopers’ request to examine the documents associated with the incident, but the court system’s statement on Tuesday confirmed the mistake.

“With this new information Troopers now believe that the document that was presented to Troopers … was not a valid court order for involuntary commitment,” the Troopers said.

In 2021, Gov. Mike Dunleavy proposed changes to the state laws governing involuntary commitments for mental health reasons, and the Legislature adopted those changes last year. Last week’s incident doesn’t appear to involve those changes.

A spokesperson for the Department of Public Safety declined to say whether the family member deliberately falsified documents or whether the mistake was innocent error. The spokesperson also declined to say whether charges are pending.

This story originally appeared in the Alaska Beacon and is republished here with permission.

Alaska Beacon

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: info@alaskabeacon.com. Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and Twitter.

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