Friday, June 17, 2016
Whiting: After critical grand jury report, Orange County police boost training to handle mentally ill
A year after the Orange County grand jury concluded that nearly every local police agency was inadequately trained to handle the mentally ill, a review has found dramatic changes, with law enforcement better prepared than ever.
Last year, the grand jury said none of the 22 law enforcement agencies in Orange County was qualified to handle the county’s newly adopted Laura’s Law, and few departments were adequately equipped to deal with mentally ill people in any way.
A year later, an examination shows that agencies including the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and police departments in Anaheim, Santa Ana, Tustin, Huntington Beach, Fullerton, Orange and Westminster have devoted thousands of hours training officers on how to deal with the mentally ill.
The results, according to a host of chiefs and street-level police, are safer officers and more effective and successful interactions with the mentally ill.
Still, this has happened at a time when police departments have fewer officers than they did before the recession of 2007 and 2008, so the progress achieved to date has only been a strong first step.
The grand jury recommended 40 hours of training, but police chiefs say staffing makes that goal unobtainable.
Instead, departments are training as best they can. In Huntington Beach, 75 percent of all officers have had at least 24 hours of Crisis Intervention Training, and specialized field training officers have had at least 32 hours, according to Chief Robert Handy. More training is scheduled.
“Our officers make very critical judgments in split-seconds of time, with very limited information,” Handy said. Increased training allows them to better identify signs of mental illness and know how to react.
The widespread and swift response is far different from what most grand jury reports generate. This report, titled “The Mental Illness Revolving Door: A Problem for Police, Hospitals and the Health Care Agency,” is being applauded by law enforcement.
That might be because the report includes the police’s side of the argument, which suggests that the county’s Health Care Agency has a role in the poor treatment of mentally ill people.
“Many police agencies stated ... the County Health Care Agency’s attitude regarding 5150s was to keep the numbers down artificially, and its posture was merely to manage the problem like a traffic cop doing traffic control rather than to embrace it, solve it, and own it,” jurors wrote.
“Police agencies expressed the feeling that the county was acting as if the problem of having dangerous and severely mentally ill persons on the streets was the police agencies’ problem rather than the Health Care Agency’s problem.”
GUARDIANS OF THE ILL
The wake-up call for all this was the July 10, 2011, death of Kelly Thomas, a 37-year-old homeless schizophrenic man, after an encounter with Fullerton police. Two officers were charged with crimes related to Thomas’ death and were acquitted. Charges against a third officer were dropped.
Still, the incident marked a sea change. Citizens rose up in anger. The health care system looked inward. Many in the law enforcement community were aghast.
Men and women in uniform realized they needed to better adapt to a new world, which, tragically, had shuttered many institutions for the mentally ill and left those suffering to wander the streets. While still handling their regular duties, police today are de facto guardians.
“The homeless and mental illness issue have become the responsibility of the police,” Fullerton Police Chief Dan Hughes said. “Local police agencies are really rising to the occasion. We’re putting a lot of resources into this.”
Even before last year’s grand jury report – and before Thomas’ death, according to the department – Fullerton was an agency at the forefront of change. In their assessment, jurors concluded that officers needed more training hours, yet they added that the Fullerton department “has excellent (crisis intervention) training materials and courses ranging from one to four days.”
Hughes ticked off several programs in place, including a virtual training simulator that requires officers to make split-second decisions about who is armed and who is not, and who is a random citizen and who is an armed threat.
Working with nonprofits, he said, the department has helped place 117 homeless people in long-term housing during the past four years.
“I’m very proud of our efforts,” he said. “We have put a tremendous amount of emphasis on our homeless and mentally ill training.”
Still, Hughes was quick to add, “That doesn’t mean we’re perfect.”
Hughes pointed to recent police shootings in San Diego that involved mental illness as an example of the continuing problem facing officers nationwide.
With grimy makeshift camps along the Santa Ana River and vagabonds wandering alleys and parks, parts of Anaheim appear almost post-apocalyptic.
A shockingly large tent city, with about 500 homeless people around the county’s Civic Center in Santa Ana, too, belies the television myth that Orange County is home to nothing but rich housewives and sun-drenched surfers.
The scenes speak not only to the relatively new roles of police as caretakers for the mentally ill, they also speak to the burden shouldered by many departments that were cut to the bone during the recession.
Anaheim police Chief Raul Quezada’s response last year to the grand jury was blunt about a department stretched thin.
His comments were similar to staffing concerns voiced by other departments – even Orange and Westminster, which the grand jury called “shining examples of a more enlightened approach” while also recommending they nearly double training hours.
“While the Anaheim Police Department agrees that providing police officers ... 40 hours of Crisis Intervention Training would greatly enhance the service delivery level to this challenging population, the impact to departmental operations to accommodate 40 hours for this training would be significant and untenable,” he said.
Still, Anaheim police Sgt. Luis Correa noted that the department presses ahead with additional training and has implemented or beefed up other programs.
Those programs include a full-time Psychiatric Emergency Response Team that handles incidents involving the mentally ill, a Homeless Outreach Team to address mental health issues, training of the negotiations unit to deal with the mentally ill, and 20 homeless-liaison officers.
Two years ago, Orange County adopted Laura’s Law, named after Laura Wilcox, who was killed in Nevada County in 2001 by a man who had refused treatment for his mental illness. The law allows officials to order treatment for the severely mentally ill, sometimes against their will.
The grand jury recommended “mandatory and specific training” related to Laura’s Law for all officers. That makes sense at first glance. Yet the law is almost never used.
Sheriff’s Lt. Andy Ferguson pointed out that while deputies might face a situation with a mentally ill person about once a week, Laura’s Law cases are few and far between. Still, like at other agencies, deputies are briefed on the law.
The grand jury also left a warning that county health officials take on more duties: “The main task of the police is to protect and serve the public.
“The time spent waiting for county clinicians to arrive at the scene, the time spent driving the mentally ill to hospital emergency rooms, and the time spent waiting (in) an emergency room with the mentally ill ... is wasted.
“All this wasted time is precious time that needlessly takes the police away from carrying out their primary duty of patrol.”
June 16, 2016
The Orange County Register
By David Whiting