By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – As a society we have asked our police force to do way more than their primary mission—arresting people suspected of committing crimes, and protecting the public from the people committing those wrongdoings. While a lot of that is by necessity, we need to recognize that police are not especially well trained as social workers and mental health officials.
One of the pushes for reimagining policing is to move these type of responses away from the need for an armed police response, where police are not especially well trained, and where there is a potential for loss of life or injuries to the police and public.
Have you ever been on the receiving end of a call where there is a mental health crisis? Unfortunately, I have been on the receiving end of all too many in the last 18 months. The good news is that each incident ended with the loved one being safe. The police and fire and other emergency responders were kind and compassionate.
But even in a situation that ended all right, I noted that neither sets of emergency responders were particularly proficient at deescalating the situation. They lacked the ability to do much other than take the individual into custody and put them on a 5150 hold. In no case were they able to talk the person down or provide any sort of crisis counseling.
I was always mindful when the police were coming that often officer-involved shootings start with a family’s call for help—not because a crime is underway but because the loved one is experiencing a crisis and needs help. And the police end up shooting the person.
The case of Miles Hall in Walnut Creek comes to mind. He was shot and killed by Walnut Creek police in June 2019.
“This was such a shocking blueprint for a person who is a well-known member of this community, shot down under the circumstances that we have alleged in the complaint—that it was an unnecessary use-of-force death. It was a failure to deescalate and they really treated him more as a criminal rather than a mentally impaired person,” Civil Rights Attorney John Burris explained in a press conference last year.
The police knew he was suffering from mental illness.
“Miles should have never died,” his mother explained. “He was in a mental health crisis and a mental health crisis should not be a death sentence.”
The family explained that the police came in hot, immediately firing six bean bag rounds, and when that didn’t stop him, they fired two shots.
The complaint was that the police came in “hot” rather than attempting to de-escalate.
There seems to be an attitude that these types of situations have only happened elsewhere. But there were at least three recent police shootings locally that might have been preventable with a different sort of response.
Consider the incident in December 2019 where police responded to a family disturbance on Avocet Avenue in Davis—it was a well known site. The son, having a mental health crisis, stabbed his mother, who would die. The police came in, he charged at them, and they opened fired. A police officer was injured and the son died.
While the police shooting was clearly from a legal standpoint justified, would a mental health team have resulted in a different outcome?
Last fall, 88-year-old Robert Coleman, a former West Sacramento police volunteer, was shot and killed after a confrontation with police in that city—he clearly suffered from mental illness and had suicidal thoughts.
Then West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon issued a statement: “After reviewing the footage, I felt even more deeply the profound tragedy of Mr. Coleman’s battle with mental illness, as well as the trauma endured both by his family and by police officers on the scene.”
Then there was the incident just recently where, in broad daylight on February 25, a man in the Walmart parking lot reportedly stabbed himself in the neck with a knife. The caller thought he had killed himself, but evidently not.
Video shows an officer arriving at the intersection, the suspect charges him, and the officer fires several rounds hitting the man who died at the scene. The man was armed with both a pellet gun and knife.
Stewart Katz, an attorney who specializes in police misconduct called the incident “suicide by cop.”
Katz told the local media “the man had already injured himself, making it very difficult for any other intervention such as a crisis person or mental health professional.”
No one questions whether the latter three incidents were “lawful” shootings. The question is, really, can we avoid the outcomes in these kinds of cases? And as Katz notes, in the latter case, it may have not been possible.
At the same time, shootings are extremely rare occurrences. More often you have people in crisis and most often the situation is resolved without injury to the subject or the police. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that these situations are handled optimally.
In the Temporary Joint Subcommittee (TJSC) recommendations, they recommend that the Davis Police “work with county partners to build an integrated ‘Crisis Now’-type model for behavioral health emergencies.”
This seems to be an area where the police and the TJSC agree. In his report to the council, Chief Darren Pytel notes that the city has been partnering with the Yolo County Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA) on a “co-responder model” which would allow an “imbedded crisis-clinician (to) be able to directly respond to calls for service, when appropriate, or respond with an officer when needed.”
In fact, HHSA has already proposed that they create a “Crisis Now” model.
This would include: a round-the-clock Crisis Call Hub, a community-based mobile crisis team, a crisis stabilization facility, and more.
Writes Pytel: “The Department has already expressed a very strong desire to immediately work towards full adoption of the Crisis Now model. These are all promising models for reducing the police calls for service for those experiencing mental health crisis.”
Pytel notes: “As Crisis Now comes on line, it’s estimated that the crisis line model will be able to appropriately handle 90%+ of the non-emergency mental health calls over the phone—diverting a vast majority of these types of 911 calls to mental health services without a needed law enforcement response or any response from any City of Davis employees.”
This is one area where the TJSC and the department are in line. There are better models out there. It is just a matter of funding them and implementing them. This is hardly a solution in search of a problem.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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