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The city of Salinas still staggers in the wake of police-involved shootings that left two young farmworkers dead during separate incidents last month.
The second shooting, on May 20, was captured on cellphone video by a witness and released to the media. It induced days of angry demonstrations in the Central Coast farming community, sparking tensions between residents and a police department that has long been understaffed and overwhelmed by continued gang violence.
Details of both shootings are under wraps while detectives investigate the incidents. Salinas police Chief Kelly McMillin promised that the reports would be forwarded to the U.S. Department of Justice’s civil rights division.
Activists in Salinas have been meeting with police officials and a federal mediator in an effort to calm the waters. “We need answers,” said Carlos Ramos, a deputy state director for the League of United Latin American Citizens. “We want peace, order and civility, but we also need accountability and justice.”
He and others are pressuring Salinas city officials to establish a police review board.
The tragedies might seem like an anomaly in Monterey County, which takes pride in its aggressive Crisis Intervention Team programs that encourage officers to mediate possibly explosive situations to avoid needless shootings of people who may be suffering from mental health issues.
Other deaths at the hands of police officers throughout California have generated similar community reaction. Notably, the savage beating by police of a schizophrenic homeless man in Fullerton in 2011 resulted in angry demonstrations and led to the recall of three Fullerton City Council members. In Lodi, the community is grappling with the January police-involved shooting of an Army veteran with a history of mental illness.
Without the release of details, it’s impossible to know yet what went wrong in Salinas last month, but it’s safe to assume that the victims were suffering from delusional episodes or mental health meltdowns. In both cases, the victims were wandering along city streets with sharp-edged objects – one a lettuce cutter, the other a pair of hedge trimmers – and neither apparently responded to officers’ commands to drop the objects.
Over the years, the Salinas Police Department has boasted a solid track record in crisis intervention. More than two-thirds of sworn officers have completed a 40-hour Crisis Intervention Team training academy offered by the county’s Behavioral Health Bureau. Its officers are regularly honored for their handling of incidents involving people with mental health issues.
The Police Department has not released the names of the officers involved in the shootings, citing fear for their safety, but McMillin said that one of the officers involved in the second shooting had been trained in CIT techniques. McMillin also said that the victim “was not interested in having a conversation,” adding that the victim’s behavior turned the incident into “a rapidly evolving situation.”
It is certainly true that people with mental illnesses can do irrational, aberrant and erratic things that can evoke a natural reactionary response from peace officers. CIT programs were created because, for too many years, the police simply charged in and eliminated the problem. Officials recognized that too many people with obvious mental health issues have been killed, seriously injured or simply thrown into prison.
Indeed, the CIT program was established in Monterey County in 2000 in response to angry demonstrations and demands by activists after a high-profile death two years earlier. In that case, Seaside police officers shot and killed a schizophrenic man who was standing on an apartment building rooftop with a corkscrew.
Since then, more than 1,000 peace officers from about a dozen jurisdictions have completed the weeklong CIT academy in Monterey County. When possible, a crisis team from the county Behavioral Health Bureau is dispatched to help officers defuse difficult situations.
National studies indicate that CIT has resulted in improvements in attitudes about mental illness among police officers, with anecdotal evidence of improved police reactions during tense situations. But a study released by the American Psychiatric Association in April concluded that more research is needed to address “potential outcomes at the system level.”
The CIT philosophy advocates that the protect-and-serve ideal of good police work sometimes requires patience and compassion. It promotes the notion that the people police encounter aren’t always criminals, despite their behavior.
“Sometimes they’re someone who just needs help,” said Chris Johnson, a Carmel police officer.
Johnson patrols the charming tourist city about 20 miles west of Salinas. His department admittedly encounters very different pressures than those his counterparts face in Salinas, but Johnson has had his share of encounters with people who act irrationally and erratic.
Last year, a Carmel officer was attacked by Jeremy Lenowitz, a physically imposing and agitated man with a history of erratic behavior. Johnson had earlier met with the man’s parents and was aware that Lenowitz might be schizophrenic. He had previously talked Lenowitz through several episodes.
But when Lenowitz attacked the officer, tackling him to the ground, Johnson and other officers could have simply hauled him off to jail – perhaps even used extreme force to subdue him. Assaulting a peace officer is an obvious felony, and the officer’s safety was in jeopardy.
Instead, Johnson transported Lenowitz to Natividad Medical Center, the county-owned hospital in Salinas with a mental health treatment facility.
“I could have taken him to county jail,” Johnson said later. “But he wasn’t a criminal. He was sick and he needed help.”
Lenowitz was eventually placed in the county’s Creating New Choices program, a diversion program under the mental health court. The program was created under a partnership among several Monterey County agencies, including the District Attorney and Public Defender’s offices. Its goal is to reduce the repetitive cycle of arrests and incarcerations for defendants with serious mental disorders. Devon Corpus, the crisis team coordinator for Monterey County, said Lenowitz is considered a “star” in the program.
Lenowitz’s father, Erwin, said Johnson’s reasoned response to his son’s outburst resulted in a “major breakthrough for Jeremy.”
Jeremy Lenowitz said he now recognizes the incident could have ended badly. “When I look at what could have happened, I’m lucky,” he said.
Johnson said the crisis intervention academy he attended instills officers with alternatives to charging into difficult circumstances with guns drawn.
“The training helped me, not only with incidents involving mental health situations, but with everything else I do,” he said. “It gave me a new perspective. When I respond to situations, I ask myself, why are they doing this? Why are they behaving like this? What is their motivation? When I take that perspective to work with me, it really does help de-escalate situations.”
The suspicion, according to Ramos, the League of United Latin American Citizens official, is that police administrators profess support for crisis intervention so that they can demonstrate their track record when things go wrong.
“In the community, after something like this happens, the question is, what happened to the training?” said Ramos, a Monterey County resident. “What happened to CIT? You can be trained, but are they implementing what they’ve learned? From what the community sees, the answer is no. Absolutely not.”
Joe Livernois is the former executive editor of the Monterey Herald. He is vice president of National Alliance on Mental Illness in Monterey County, though the column is not intended to reflect NAMI opinion.