Law Enforcement Receives Training to Better Deal with Encounters with Mentally Ill

police-lineIn last week’s Sacramento Bee, there was a good article that outlined new training that law enforcement in Woodland received about ways to defuse potentially volatile encounters with mentally ill and emotionally disturbed individuals by using words instead of force.

According to the story, “Nineteen officers, dispatchers and security guards from across the region took part in four days of seminars and an afternoon of role playing Thursday.”

In this training, there were numerous scenarios acted out depicting common occurrences that police often face.  The participants were asked to deal with these situations.

The article cites no less than five fatal confrontations between police and mentally ill individuals since 2007.

The Woodland training sessions began in 2008 following the death of Ricardo Abrahams.

By now, many people know the story of the death of Ricardo Abrahams.  Feeling distraught he checked into Safe Harbor, part of the Yolo Community Care Continuum  upon the urging of his family due to a condition where he was increasingly disoriented, stressed, and uncommunicative.  However, at some point he left the facility.  Concerned about his well-being, the facility alerted the police.

When the police arrived, a confrontation ensued where Mr. Abrahams anxiety escalated to the point where police feared for his safety and their safety, although all he had was a pencil.  What happen next is that he was repeatedly tasered and finally they jumped on him to subdue him.  While face down, his large size apparently led to his own asphyxiation.

The family has sued among others the police and the Yolo Community Care Continuum.  he family has already settled their suit against the Woodland Police for a $300,000 settlement, however, now the suit against the YCCC continues to progress.

It is interesting to note that in their attempt to gain summary judgment, the defendants argue that YCCC cannot be held liable for the death of Mr. Abrahams in part because it is not a foreseeable outcome that calling the police would lead to Mr. Abrahams’ death.  Moreover, while the death argued that YCCC had a duty to inform the police about Mr. Abrahams’ condition and the risks and facts in involved. 

Defense countered that this would require the care facility to tell police how to do their job.  That there was a presumption that they were incapable of knowing how to deal with mental health patients.  Instead they argued that the police are specially trained at dealing with this people suffering from mental illness and that the only requirement was for YCCC to alert the police that they were dealing with a mental health patient.  Along these lines, the defense argued that there was no other duty on the YCCC other than to call the police during a mental health crisis.

It was this point of all points that did not gibe well with the reality that many know who deal with people with mental illness.  The police are not well-trained or well-equipped to deal with a person who is non-responsive due not to malice or substance abuse, but rather due to a mental affliction, some of which may be short term in nature.

This the point that Michael Summers one of the coordinators and a former Sacramento police officer made:

“Cops often don’t have an understanding of how confused and frightened people can be when they’re in crisis, so the biggest thing is to slow things down.  We’re trying to get them to have a little bit of empathy.”

This runs contrary to the defense’s contention that police are well-trained to handle such cases.  YCCC of all places ought to understand that.

However, according to some with experience with YCCC, the non-profit is often underfunded and they believe it was likely that the police were called in not for the protection of Mr. Abrahams, but rather to force the patient to return to Safe Harbor in hopes of filling another bed and keeping them financial afloat.  According to them, YCCC has a long history of abusing its patients in part because of underfunding and in part due to overmedication and the hiring of unqualified staff.

While the Sacramento Bee article makes specific reference to police handling of situations that turn fatal, that is not the only problem that arises in police confrontations with people suffering from mental illness.

We could provide countless incidents where the police simply do not handle confrontations very well.  Even when confrontations do not turn fatal, they are handled in a manner not helpful to police or the individual involved.  In November, the Vanguard covered a story on Gino Roman who was arrested, convicted and finally sentence to prison time for resisting arrest and attacking an officer. 

According to his defense attorney, Deputy Public Defender Richard Van Zandt Mr. Roman was breaking no law when police were called to the residence. The other residents, his family, had police called because he was behaving erratically. Police, knowing Mr. Roman’s mental health history, were there to detain him for a 5150 hold. 

Despite this knowledge the incident escalated to the point where the police had to use various uses of force to subdue him including half a dozen “distractionary strikes” with a closed fist on Mr. Roman’s upper back and about the same amount of closed baton strikes to the same area.

There are other facts in this case that make the arrest and conviction questionable at best, but for the purposes here, the police did not handle a situation with a known distraught individual well.

According to the Bee, the training lasted for a week with lecturers including a psychiatrist who demonstrated how bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and depression occur.

“Students practiced de-escalation techniques through role playing. Summers asked them to set aside weapons and work through improvised situations.

Make sure people are communicating and understand you’re a police officer, he said. Determine if they may be hearing voices. And no laying on of hands, he said.”

Because police officers often have to respond in mental health crises, having a trained crisis intervention officer there can make a difference.  According to nurse Sharon Roth in the Bee article, people who call 911 can ask for one.

As Mr. Summer pointed out however, “there will always be tragic incidents between police and mental health consumers, but we can try to lesson them and educate for better outcomes.”

From our perspective, it was reassuring to know that such training is starting to take place and that law enforcement officials have acknowledge the problems and dangers of dealing with people of mental illness.  This is a very different scenario than the type of situation that they normally encounter where they are met with noncompliance from an individual acting out of malice and understanding the consequences of their actions.

—David M. Greenwald reporting


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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One thought on “Law Enforcement Receives Training to Better Deal with Encounters with Mentally Ill”

  1. Rich Rifkin

    I completely agree that this sort of training is crucial for cops. Not just in bigger cities, but everywhere. The police not only have a horribly challenging situation when they are faced with some schizophrenics and severe bipolars, but they have to deal with people who are depressed or suicidal, high on recreational drugs or drunk or otherwise not in their right minds. They are the front-line soldiers in psychiatry. That takes a lot of training and experience to get it right.

    A cop I know — who is now a detective for the San Jose PD, but was for 16 years in uniform — told me a few years ago that a day never went by that he did not deal with a person who was psychotic. Most, of course, are no danger to themselves or to the police. But some are, and those confrontations for officers are especially tough.

    Even if we had a working mental health system in which patients who should be medicated were getting treatment or those who need to be in protective custody were locked up in facilities which have qualified psychiatrists and not just jail guards, there would still be issues for the cops and people suffering a psychotic episode. However, the fact that our system is so broken and seriously ill patients who are hallucinating are left to decide for themselves what care they need means that these confrontations between patients and the police are now everyday occurrences.

    The police do a better job with them if they are trained and experienced. But cops cannot solve the real problem–that civil libertarians have created a revolving door in which hundreds of thousands of people with serious disorders break down, become homeless and victims of others, commit senseless crimes, get arrested, spend time in jail, recover their senses under medications in jail, get out, and start the cycle over again.

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