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Officers Reaching Out to Mentally Ill

A Ventura County program aims to teach law enforcement how to defuse delicate encounters.

November 12, 2003|Sandra Murillo | Times Staff Writer

Two years after launching the training program, Ventura County sheriff's officials Tuesday lauded the success of a course designed to better prepare law enforcement officers in dealing with the mentally ill.

To date, 251 officers from six local law enforcement agencies have completed the Crisis Intervention Team Program, which officials credited with helping to save lives by defusing potentially violent situations.

"Although you can't quantify it, I know anecdotally it's saving lives, time and time and time again," Sheriff Bob Brooks said during a presentation to the Board of Supervisors.

At least 20% of local officers and communications specialists have taken the 40-hour course, but the goal is for all patrol officers to receive at least eight hours of training, said Joyce Wilde, program manager. The program is funded with an $800,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services through 2004.

Wilde said such training has become increasingly important because in a county where there are almost 12,000 adults with severe mental illness, officers often are confronted with difficult and sometimes life-threatening situations involving a disturbed person. On average, county law enforcement officers respond to a minimum of three calls a day involving a mentally ill person, she said.

"People who used to be housed in psychiatric hospitals, because of the closure of state hospitals and the lack of treatment centers, are now more likely to come into contact with law enforcement," Wilde said.

The program was prompted in part by continuing complaints from the community about a lack of police training in dealing with the mentally ill.

In 2002, the county grand jury issued a report that found that of 32 officer-involved shootings over the previous decade, more than half involved a mentally ill person. It concluded that with the 1997 closure of Camarillo State Hospital, incidents involving mentally ill subjects would continue to rise.

According to the report, Oxnard police were involved in seven fatal shootings of mentally ill people during the period studied, the most of any local police agency.

Earlier this year, the city of Oxnard agreed to a $1.5-million settlement with the family of a distraught man who was fatally shot by police in 2001 after his mother called officers to take her knife-wielding son to a hospital.

Although clearing the Oxnard officers of any crime, county prosecutors found that the shooting may have resulted from faulty tactics by poorly trained officers.

Today, the county's largest law enforcement agencies -- the Ventura County Sheriff's Department and the Oxnard Police Department -- have a combined 146 officers that have undergone the crisis intervention training.

In the class, sheriff's deputies and officers from the Ventura, Simi Valley, Port Hueneme, Oxnard and Santa Paula police departments learn techniques to defuse life-and-death situations.

With the help of mental health professionals, they learn to recognize when a person is suffering from a psychotic episode. They role-play and learn that the typical commanding police presence is not appropriate in dealing with a troubled person. They learn to speak softly, use a first name and establish rapport with the person.

"They're there to slow down the situation," Wilde said. "They immediately come upon it ready to de-escalate the situation."

Wilde said the program seems to be slowly working. In the nine months from Jan. 1 to Sept. 30, there were at least 969 incidents involving the mentally ill, she said. In 129 of those, a weapon was involved; 21 cases involved a gun. But only one of the incidents in which crisis-trained officers responded did not end peacefully.

Last February, an intoxicated 49-year-old man carrying a kitchen knife and suffering from psychosis called police from his Oxnard home saying he was suicidal. Crisis-trained officers arrived at the scene minutes later to find a paranoid and agitated man threatening them with a knife.

Officers talked to him for 20 minutes, eventually calming him down. They were able to transfer him to a county mental health facility.

For Wilde, the incident is an example of how far law enforcement officers have come in a short time.

But even as the program progresses, the county has seen several officer shootings involving the mentally ill in recent months.

In April, deputies fatally shot a 19-year-old man suffering from bipolar disorder and psychosis as he approached a crowd at a Thousand Oaks swim school after he was seen cutting himself with a knife.

In March, a 56-year-old emotionally distraught woman was fatally shot in her car at Point Mugu State Park after a standoff with deputies. She had a gun in her possession.

Crisis-trained officers were not involved in either incident.

The Crisis Intervention Team was originally formed to train police officers in hostile situations but now also works to help authorities identify and provide referral services for mentally ill people with frequent run-ins with law enforcement, Wilde said.

"We're just getting up to speed right now," Wilde said. "I strongly feel that the Crisis Intervention Team will bear out over a period of time."

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