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Sacramento mayor wants officers to spend a week learning how to approach mentally ill

Watch the police videos showing what happened before and after officers fatally shot mentally ill man (explicit language)

Dazion Jerome Flenaugh, 40, was allegedly armed with knives when he was shot seven times by three Sacramento police officers after a chaotic pursuit, according to police statements and review of video by The Sacramento Bee. Video released to The B
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Dazion Jerome Flenaugh, 40, was allegedly armed with knives when he was shot seven times by three Sacramento police officers after a chaotic pursuit, according to police statements and review of video by The Sacramento Bee. Video released to The B

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg wants all city police officers to spend a week learning how to deal with mentally ill people.

The plan, which will be presented by interim Police Chief Brian Louie to the City Council on Thursday, would cost $750,000 over two years. While the department will look for grants, Steinberg said he will seek city budget funds if necessary, calling mental illness the “unattended issue of our time.”

The proposal comes after two mentally ill men were killed last year by Sacramento officers in separate incidents that sparked community frustration.

“This is one of the most important steps we can take to improve the relationship between our Police Department and our community,” Steinberg said. “This training is the start to asking and answering the question, ‘How do we get more people the help they need?’ 

Crisis Intervention Team, or CIT, training is widely used across the United States, and the proposed 40-hour session would teach officers to recognize and de-escalate situations with noncompliant or difficult populations. Currently, Sacramento police take an eight-hour “awareness” version, according to police spokesman Sgt. Bryce Heinlein.

Police experts say that the training has limitations when dealing with a violent suspect, but mental health advocates believe it can lead to better outcomes.

“If a person is agitated and upset, there are ways to help somebody calm down no matter what is causing the agitation,” said Laura Usher, senior manager of criminal justice and advocacy for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

The training includes presentations by people with mental illness, their family members and mental health service providers. The goal is to help officers understand and empathize with the fear and stigma that mentally ill people often feel, said Sam Cochran, chairman of advocacy group Crisis Intervention Training International Inc.

Cochran helped implement the first CIT training program in Memphis, Tenn., in 1987 after police there shot a mentally ill man armed with a knife.

In November, the Sacramento City Council passed measures that included a new use-of-force policy aimed at getting officers to use nonlethal ways to approach suspects and focus on de-escalation techniques. Those changes were driven by public outcry over Sacramento police shootings last year of two African American mentally ill men, Joseph Mann and Dazion Jerome Flenaugh.

Mann was shot dead in July after exhibiting strange behavior in North Sacramento. An initial team of officers approached him calmly, but another pair of officers attempted to hit him with their cruiser before shooting him dead. Police said in July that Mann had lunged at them with his knife, though activists and family members have disputed that account based on police video.

Flenaugh was initially calm when sitting in the back of a police cruiser in south Sacramento in April, but quickly grew agitated. At the first opportunity, he left the police car and ran through backyards, swung a pickax at a resident’s door and grabbed kitchen knives that he refused to drop when he was shot dead by officers, according to police.

Patty DeSantis welcomes the training. She said she is afraid what will happen if officers without certain skills encounter her brother, Sean Farrell, who is mentally ill and homeless in Sacramento.

Diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, Farrell has wandered Sacramento streets for more than a year, often “out of touch” with the world around him, DeSantis said. She’s tried to help him, moving him into her Yuba City house and later an apartment, but it didn’t work. One day he walked away and has since refused her offers.

She reached out to Sacramento Police Department’s Impact team, a group of five officers assigned with a social worker to handle homeless people with mental illness. DeSantis said members of that team have interacted with her brother without incident so far, but she still worries.

“Authority figures like law enforcement are going to tell him what to do and he might respond like a kid having a fit, having a tantrum,” she said. “It will start as something small ... and escalate.”

Ed Obayashi, a use-of-force expert recognized by the federal government, said that CIT training is ideally suited for interventions for people like Farrell who are nonviolent and need help getting into services. But he warned that using it in volatile situations could be dangerous for officers.

“You are not going to try to go in with (crisis intervention training) with someone who is swinging an ax,” Obayashi said. “At that point you are on a different plane of enforcement.”

Chuck Wexler, executive director of Washington-based Police Executive Research Forum, said his organization supports CIT training but believes that approach lacks tactics to handle violent confrontations. His organization trains officers to incorporate “tactical pauses” so that when a situation escalates, they have strategic training to avoid lethal force. Five Sacramento officers took that training in December, he said.

“We have said that it’s not enough to simply have crisis intervention skills, you also need to integrate it with tactics,” said Wexler. “What happens is you will have this person who … (has) a knife or a baseball bat or a rock and someone is using their crisis intervention skills and then they start to approach the officer.”

Cochran said CIT efforts don’t work unless there are mental health providers working with police. Without a triage center where officers can take those in crisis without arresting them, officers are forced to use jails and emergency rooms, he said.

Jails, he said, create a cycle of criminalizing mental illness, while already-impacted emergency rooms can leave officers waiting hours with their patient, taking them away from patrolling. Both scenarios undermine the intervention training by making it hard for officers to create positive interactions, he said.

Usher pointed out that law enforcement officials have increasingly become the first-line providers of mental care as social services have been cut, burdening police beyond their traditional scope.

“Imagine if the police were first responders to heart attacks,” she said. “That would be unacceptable.”

Cochran said that police departments should identify officers skilled at crisis intervention to provide leadership during tense encounters, even if all officers are trained in CIT skills.

“We’ve got some wonderful, outstanding officers, but we’ve got some officers who are not suited for that role,” Cochran said. “You’ve got to have the right person.”

Mark Harris, an attorney for Flenaugh’s family, said he supports the training but called it an “incremental step.”

Last week, he and other African American community members presented Steinberg with a 27-page report on Sacramento police prepared by a high-profile Los Angeles law firm. That report called for the department to be more transparent, including increasing the use of body cameras and conducting a study on racial profiling in traffic stops.

Steinberg said that he is reviewing other potential changes in the department.

“It’s my third week,” he said. “This is a start.”

Anita Chabria: 916-321-1049, @chabriaa

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