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Ventura County Perspective

Protect the Mentally Ill

September 27, 1998

For the third time this year, a mentally ill person has been shot dead by police in Ventura County after an armed confrontation.

Meanwhile, the Board of Supervisors' ill-advised scheme to treat mental illness not as a medical problem but as a social one (at least on the county's organizational chart) has received another veto from federal officials.

We can do a better job of protecting people with mental illnesses from doing or suffering harm. We must.

Moorpark College student Han Huynh, 29, of Camarillo was shot and killed by sheriff's deputies Tuesday night in Thousand Oaks after he reportedly lunged at officers with an eight-inch knife. Relatives said he had been found to have schizophrenia and had suffered bouts of depression.

In an era when only the most severely afflicted are confined to institutions, thousands of people with a vast array of mental problems are living in our community, nearly all of them as peaceful and productive as anybody else. But in a crisis situation, some may react unpredictably or worse.

The county has a 20-person Mental Health Crisis and Emergency Team, but often it is not called, or called in time, or able to help.

As part of their basic training, all police officers are instructed on how to deal with individuals with psychiatric problems. Yet it is often difficult to assess a person's mental state in a moment of crisis, and techniques that are effective in calming down most people can backfire with the mentally ill.

Nobody wants to trade places with a police officer who answers a call to find a person armed and acting strangely. In the uncertainty and adrenaline of the moment, officers must quickly size up the situation and take charge. The safety of the officer and bystanders is the first concern. To further complicate matters, in two recent Ventura County cases distraught people apparently attacked officers with the intention of committing "suicide by police." And police officers, most recently Deputy Peter J. Aguirre, have died in confrontations with psychotic people as well.

Many times each week, police officers make the right call and the incident is soon forgotten. For example, on the same night Huynh died, a distraught Simi Valley man barricaded himself inside a business for four hours but surrendered peacefully after talking with crisis negotiators. But the encounters that go wrong are tragic for everyone involved.

"Clearly, police need more training," says Lou Matthews, president of the Ventura County Alliance for the Mentally Ill. "You don't deal with a psychotic person the same way you deal with a normal one."

Matthews' advice is to give the troubled person some room, if possible, and let him wear himself out. Understand that moving in close in an intimidating manner--standard police procedure--can cause a paranoid person to lose control.

With the trend toward housing the mentally ill in the community rather than in institutions, confrontations between mental patients and the police are inevitable. Stepped-up training and continued improvement of nonlethal arrest techniques can keep these situations from flaring out of control.

At the same time, county supervisors should heed the warnings of federal officials about legal pitfalls in the way of their plan to shift control of the mental health services department from the county hospital to welfare officials. This politically motivated plan, which could well end up costing the county up to $15 million a year in un-reimbursed care, does not serve the interests of the mentally ill or other residents who share the community with them.

The supervisors should stop looking for a way to contort this strategy into some form the feds will accept, and instead return to dealing with mental illness as the medical problem it is.

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