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Police say violent encounters with mentally ill people on rise

08/25/2014 12:00 AM

08/25/2014 10:56 AM

The scenario plays out regularly in streets and neighborhoods across the Sacramento region: A person suffering from mental illness has a weapon, and is deemed a threat.

It happened last week in Woodland, where an officer who had received special training in how to deal with mentally ill people confronted a man who suffered from grandiose delusions of being God or, at times, Old West outlaw Jesse James.

It happened earlier this year in Lodi, where officers who had not received such training approached Parminder Singh Shergill, an Army veteran who suffered from schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder and was in the throes of a psychiatric episode.

In both cases, the outcome was the same: Both men died in a hail of police gunfire.

Since 2012, police in Sacramento, Placer, Yolo and El Dorado counties have shot and killed 30 people, according to a Sacramento Bee survey of local departments and published reports. In at least seven of those shootings, mental illness was a contributing factor, according to police and family members. The number does not include the Shergill case, which occurred in San Joaquin County.

Officers across the country are reporting an increase in encounters with mentally ill people who are deemed a threat to themselves or others. Police and mental health specialists blame the trend in part on sharp cuts in mental health programs, as well as an influx of war veterans returning home with PTSD and other psychological scars.

A report released last year by the Treatment Advocacy Center and the National Sheriffs’ Association estimated that half the people fatally shot by law enforcement officers in the United States suffer from mental illness.

“We deal with people on a daily basis who have problems in that realm,” said Woodland police Sgt. Brett Hancock. “Sometimes people with mental illnesses are not living in reality. It makes our contacts with them very difficult. It takes more time to figure out what they need and how we should react to them.”

Last Monday, Woodland officers were faced with just such a situation, Hancock said, when they responded to a call involving Jeffrey Towe, 53. Towe’s family said he suffered from schizoaffective and bipolar disorders, diagnoses that surfaced after he returned from serving six years in the Army. In 1990, Towe fatally shot his mother in the family’s Elk Grove home, an incident the family said happened accidentally while he was cleaning a gun.

Two weeks ago, family members said, he delivered a collection of knives to his sister, telling her he couldn’t be trusted around them.

On Monday, police arrived at Towe’s apartment building after a neighbor called to report someone yelling about “four horsemen” and “cutting hearts out,” according to the building manager. Hancock said Towe was wielding a long, military-style knife and threatened officers when they arrived.

Among the officers who responded was Darryl Moore, who had been with the department for 13 years. Woodland police officials said officers tried to negotiate with Towe, asking him to drop the knife. Instead, said Hancock, Towe charged police, and Moore, fearing for his life, shot him.

Moore is among the thousands of law enforcement officers around the country who have been trained in techniques to help officers defuse potentially violent encounters with mentally ill people. Joel Fay, a psychologist and former cop who teaches such techniques, said Crisis Intervention Team training has helped reduce use-of-force incidents involving mentally unstable people.

“We are managing those situations much more effectively, but the public doesn’t know about it,” Fay said. “If we don’t shoot the person, it doesn’t make it into the paper.”

But the approach is not fail-safe.

“The goal is to reduce deadly force,” Fay said. “There is very little that you can do when a man has a deadly weapon and they are charging you.”

The effectiveness of CIT training is difficult to measure, specialists said. But a recent study published in a journal of the American Psychiatric Association concluded that officers who took the courses were more likely to refer people to mental health services than arrest them.

Trained officers also were significantly more likely to report verbal engagement or negotiation as the “highest level of force” used, according to the research, which assessed more than 600 officers and 1,000 encounters with people suffering from mental illness.

CIT training evolved after a 1987 incident in which police in Memphis shot and killed a young man who was mentally ill and threatening people with a knife. In response to public outcry, the city’s mayor enlisted mental health advocates, police, hospital officials and others to develop a program for responding to people in mental crisis.

In the years since, 2,700 agencies across the country have taken the training, including police departments throughout California, from rural Modoc County to metropolitan Los Angeles. Lodi police Chief Mark Helms has said his agency is looking at establishing a CIT team in response to Shergill’s death.

Sacramento County has begun training its deputies, and this fall plans to partner deputies in the field with behavioral health specialists to assist with calls involving people who are mentally ill.

“At that point we will have access to a whole network of agencies, public and private,” that can connect people to treatment rather than jail, said Sacramento County sheriff’s Lt. Santos Ramos, manager of the area’s Regional Crisis Intervention Team. “It’s going to be a great thing for us, for the people who are ill, and for the community.”

Some agencies initially resisted the training approach, which emphasizes talking in a less-aggressive tone and “slowing down” action at the scene, said Randolph T. Dupont, a psychologist and professor in the University of Memphis Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice.

“There was some skepticism initially, mostly because of concerns about officer safety,” he said. But studies have shown the approach actually reduces injuries and arrests, according to a recent report by the National Alliance On Mental Illness.

The CIT program stresses collaboration among mental health providers, law enforcement and community advocates, Dupont said. A police training program of up to 40 hours includes sessions in recognizing mental illness, information about the mental health system and laws, and instruction in how to verbally defuse volatile situations.

“Prior to my training, my approach would be civil to a point,” Hancock said. “I would ask someone to do something, and if they did not, my response would elevate automatically.

“Now, when I recognize people are having moments when they are not in reality, I may give them more time to try and figure things out. I change the verbiage. My tone of voice changes. I talk more slowly.”

Ramos, the Sacramento County sheriff’s lieutenant, said the impetus for the region’s CIT initiative was “a culmination of the downturn in the economy and budget cuts” that left many mentally ill people unmoored from treatment services. “When people are not getting care, law enforcement bears the brunt of it,” he said.

His agency began seeing a spike in calls for services related to mental illness and encounters with people who “were off of their medications, on the streets, displaying strange behavior.”

In 2012, the region had 16 fatal police shootings, including a record 10 involving the Sheriff’s Department. “We had to take a good look at how we were responding to these calls,” Ramos said.

Regionwide, more than 500 officers have now gone through the training, he said, and it has paid dividends. “We’ve had officers call or email and tell us, ‘I took the training and was immediately able to use the information in a call for service last night.’ ”

Fay illustrated the approach during a recent training session in Yolo County, advising his students to “strive for influence versus power.”

“If you raise your level of agitation, they will raise theirs,” he said. “Talk to them calmly. Try to ground them and bring them to the reality of the moment. Ask them, ‘What can I do for you? What do you need?’

“Often you can talk them down.”

But not always, said Hancock. He said last week’s shooting illustrates that “whether someone is sane or insane, there are moments when an officer is required to act.”

“The training is great,” said Hancock. “But it doesn’t alter the fact that there is a time and a place for talking, and a time and a place for action. If someone is threatening an officer with a weapon, it’s lethal force versus lethal force.”

Sacto 911 Staff

Bill Lindelof
blindelof@sacbee.com
@Lindelofnews

Cathy Locke
clocke@sacbee.com

Andy Furillo
Superior Court
afurillo@sacbee.com
@andyfurillo

Denny Walsh
Federal Court
dwalsh@sacbee.com

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