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Law enforcement mental health training not a panacea

An inmate is escorted from the new mental health treatment unit at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville, Calif., Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013.  The  $24 million treatment center for mentally ill inmates opened on Thursday as state corrections officials used the occasion to push for ending federal oversight of that aspect of prison operations. The 44,000-square-foot building includes rooms where inmates will undergo individual, group and recreational outpatient therapy. It will be used to treat inmates who are seriously mentally ill but are able to function without around-the-clock care.
Rich Pedroncelli/AP
An inmate is escorted from the mental health treatment unit at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville. State Senate President Pro Tem Donald Steinberg and other lawmakers are seeking extra funds to train law enforcement and prison personnel in handling the mentally ill.

Debbie is a Ventura County mother of a 23-year-old son diagnosed with bipolar disorder. At times his condition becomes so severe that he gets delusional and requires hospitalization. 

"He doesn’t understand that he’s ill and that he needs help," Debbie says. "He thinks he’s fine."

Debbie, who asked that her last name be withheld for privacy reasons, says when that happens, she calls the sheriff’s department for help -  as she did earlier this year.  Their response, she says, was heartening. 

"The police officers...were so great, because they kept telling him, ‘You’re not in trouble, we’re here to help you,' " she says. "So they weren’t threatening; they didn't scare him. It stayed really, really calm."

And that allowed the deputies to take Debbie's son to the county psychiatric hospital for emergency observation without incident. 

"As far as a bad experience goes, it was as good a bad experience as was possible in this situation," she says. 

The responding deputies included several who had received 40 hours of training in handling the mentally ill through Ventura County’s "Crisis Intervention Team" program. The training is based on a renowned model started in Memphis, Tennessee in 1988 that is now taught worldwide.

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Tragedies such as the Isla Vista massacre and the Kelly Thomas case in Orange County have highlighted the need for improved training for law enforcement personnel who come into contact with the mentally ill.

So far, 72 percent of all  law enforcement officers have completed the Crisis Intervention Team training in Ventura County, says Kiran Sahota, who oversees the program for the county. 

"The idea is to hopefully help to deescalate and slow down the situation," Sahota says. "And sometimes by just knowing ahead of time that (law enforcement officers) are going to be listening and spending a little extra time, it really can defuse a situation." 

But even in Ventura County, breakdowns can happen. 

In Debbie’s case, she says the county psychiatric hospital released her son before the end of his 14-day hold. Then, she says, while he was still in a delusional state  he broke into a neighbor’s vacant house that he thought was his own. 

Debbie’s son was arrested and now faces criminal charges.

"He’s never done anything illegal," Debbie says. "If he was in his right mind, he would be mortified."

A county spokeswoman says patient privacy laws prevent the hospital from commenting on the case.

"Sometimes people fall through the cracks," says Devon Corpus, crisis supervisor for Monterey County and an expert in the field of Crisis Intervention Team training. "You might have officers that have received great training; they’re doing this good work and then they do a hand off to an agency and there really isn’t a collaboration or team approach to that hand-off."

RELATED: After Isla Vista, does California need a 'gun violence restraining order' law?

That may have been what happened late last year when Debbie’s friend Stephanie – who also lives in Ventura County -- called authorities for help with her 26-year-old bipolar son.

Stephanie, whose last name was omitted for privacy reasons, says for several days prior to that incident, she and other family members had tried to get her then-suicidal son into a psychiatric hospital.

"But he hadn’t really acted up enough," she says. "and you really have to essentially be out of your mind for them to take you without violating personal rights."

Ultimately, her son had an altercation with his father that became the grounds the family needed to make the call for help.

Crisis Intervention Team officers from the Ventura Police Department responded. And, Stephanie says, as in Debbie's case, they were able to calm her son and the situation.  

But the assault meant Stephanie's son had to be booked into county jail before being transferred to the psychiatric hospital.  Stephanie says the officers told her he would be in jail for just three or four hours before the transfer. 

RELATED: Justice Department finds mental health care in L.A. County jails unconstitutional

"So I went to bed for the first time in about six weeks with a peaceful mind," says Stephanie. "'Okay, this one’s done. He’s in the hospital. I know he doesn’t love it there, but he’s safe.'"

But, as it turned out, Stephanie says her son wasn't in the hospital, or safe.

"He wound up being in the Ventura County jail for 28 to 29 hours - no medication," she says. "They stripped him naked because they thought he might kill himself, somehow, with his clothing… so not only was he completely ashamed and out of his mind, he began to bang his head on the wall, saying, 'if you don’t get me out of here, if you don’t get me out of here,  I’m going to  kill myself.'"

Stephanie says her son’s self-inflicted injuries left him with a severe concussion, a swollen face and two black eyes. A spokesman for the Ventura County Sheriff’s department – which runs the jail – says he could not comment on the case.

State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) says stories like Stephanie’s and Debbie’s are a too-common byproduct of a fragmented and overcrowded mental health system. 

The issue of mental illness in the criminal justice system has gotten far too little attention and far too few resources, Steinberg says. 

Steinberg and other lawmakers have introduced a series of budget proposals to address those concerns.

The proposals include $12 million to train law enforcement and prison personnel in the handling of the mentally ill.