First-responder units focused on mental health needed, Nocco says

Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco released a brief video March 24 addressing the need for first responder units specially trained to deal with people suffering mental health crises. The topic related to the March 20 shooting by deputies at a RaceTrac gas station in Hudson.

Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco on March 24 addressed the shooting by deputies in Hudson on March 20 that left a 79-year-old man dead.

The incident occurred at the RaceTrac gas station at the corner of U.S. Highway 19 and Little Road during the early morning hours. Over a span of more than 40 minutes, deputies addressed the elderly suspect, James Zambrotto, as he sat in the driver’s seat of his sedan. Body-worn camera footage shared by law enforcement showed deputies speaking with the man who stated he believed his phone was tapped and he was being listened to through the car radio. He threatened to ram his car into other vehicles, the gas station and gas pumps.

The incident escalated with deputies seeing that Zambrotto had a firearm in the front seat. A deputy pepper-sprayed the suspect through an open rear window, causing Zambrotto to accelerate his vehicle forward and ram a patrol vehicle. Deputies then began trying to smash the vehicle’s front windows while ordering Zambrotto to drop the weapon and show his hands. That’s when incident reports state Zambrotto fired his handgun and deputies opened fire.

Zambrotto was injured in the shooting and transported to an area hospital. He died at the hospital two days later, March 22.

“During this incident our members recognized this person was in crisis,” Nocco said in a video. “For over 40 minutes they tried to help this person who was in crisis. And it doesn’t matter who that person is. We don’t care your race, color, creed, gender or sexual orientation. When you’re in crisis, we try to help you. But, unfortunately, in these types of situations when somebody pulls a gun out and starts shooting at law enforcement officers, they’re forced to defend themselves and put themselves in a situation to protect other citizens who are around them.”

It’s the distressing, confusing and life-threatening statements captured throughout the body-worn camera footage that Nocco focused on during his brief video.

“We understand the deputies’ training showed that this person was in crisis,” Nocco said. “I’ll be the first to admit that in the United States, we should have a third first-responder unit. Along with fire rescue and law enforcement, there should be mental health first responders out there.”

The Pasco Sheriff’s Office created its Behavioral Health Intervention Team in 2019 and added a therapy dog to the unit in March 2020. The department also has crisis negotiators and members with crisis intervention training, Nocco said, but not a team equipped for the incident at the RaceTrac on March 20.

“We need that third first-responder unit out there,” he said. “But unfortunately, we don’t have it.

“We as a county, as a state, as a nation need to focus on that third responder — those people that can respond to these crises because these situations aren’t going to stop. Unfortunately, with mental health (issues) and substance abuse, they’re only going to get worse.”