Guest Commentary: Alameda County’s 51–50 Crisis

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Alameda County’s 51–50 crisis is the highest rate of involuntary psychiatric holds in California and the worst conditions of incarceration

By Pamela Y. Price

Alameda County’s 51–50 Crisis has exploded! Did you know that more people suffer from mental health crises in Alameda County than anywhere else in California? According to the State Dept. Of Health Services, Alameda County has the highest rate of involuntary psychiatric holds (51–50) in the entire state. And we are FAILING miserably to respond to people in crisis.

Instead of responding with care or concern, we are putting people in custody in conditions of confinement that violate the U.S. Constitution. Alameda County’s 51–50 crisis is real. The U.S. Dept. of Justice (DOJ) is ready to sue Alameda County to force it to improve its mental health care services. DOJ’s four-year study with a preliminary report in 2017 and follow-up in 2019 is a harsh indictment of our County’s mental health system.

A Mental Health Crisis Should Not Be A Death Sentence

Too often, in Alameda County, a mental health crisis becomes a death sentence. The DOJ found that fourteen (14) people killed themselves in Santa Rita County Jail between 2015 and 2019. That is at a rate twice the national average. Jail staff estimate that about 40% of the people in Santa Rita need mental health treatment. Mental health staff are only allowed to treat people for two (2) hours a day. And the time allotted for each person is limited to 10–15 minutes. Plus, these “confidential” conversations take place where they can be overheard by other prisoners and the jail officers.

The DOJ found that Santa Rita regularly releases mentally ill people without a treatment plan or adequate medication. People leaving Santa Rita “often receive little more than a sheet of paper that lists programs in the community.” Not surprisingly, many of them show up at the John George Psychiatric Pavilion or become homeless. Between 2012–2017, 4,200 people released from Santa Rita ended up at John George within 30 days.

Between 2017–2019, the DOJ found almost 1,600 people were admitted to John George four or more times. Eleven percent (11%) of people discharged from the inpatient unit were readmitted within two weeks. DOJ investigators found many people occupying inpatient beds at John George had been cleared for discharge but had nowhere to go. In 2019, 39% of our unhoused community members reported having a mental health issue.

In 2020, Disability Rights Advocates sued Alameda County for the unnecessary segregation of people with mental health disabilities — especially Black people — in psychiatric institutions and failure to provide services to people with disabilities. Their investigation found that 55% of the people Alameda County psychiatrically institutionalized ten (10) or more times since 2018 are Black. Black men are 30% more likely to end up psychiatrically institutionalized when there is an emergency mental health crisis call compared to others.

A Death Sentence for Christian Madrigal

In the summer of 2019, Jose Jaime and Gabriela Covarrubias called 911 to request a 5150 transfer to a psychiatric facility to help their son Christian Madrigal. They called 911 as instructed by a Santa Clara Psychiatric clinic. Christian was only 20 years old and appeared to be having a psychotic break. The Fremont police were supposed to escort Christian back to the clinic. Instead, Christian was put into a WRAP device (a binding that covers the legs and torso) and taken to Santa Rita. There, Christian was chained to a door in his cell and left alone. As the deputies joked about his mental condition, Christian used the chains provided to him by the deputies to hang himself.

Christian’s family had to wait almost a year before the Sheriff’s office took any action against the supervisor. Instead of firing the supervisor, the he was able to retire with a full pension. In October 2020, the County agreed to pay Jose and Gabriela $5 million for the death of their son. Alameda District Attorney O’Malley did not investigate Christian’s death or file any charges. Jose and Gabriela just wanted answers. They were left in the dark for so long as to what really happened. O’Malley has not responded to their requests for information. Jose and Gabriela have endorsed me in the race for Alameda County District Attorney.

The Circle of the Crisis

Alameda County’s 51–50 crisis often starts and ends on the street. Even before the involuntary psychiatric hold (51–50) starts, police officers are forced to respond. They are ill-equipped to respond, resulting in the unnecessary use of force with tragic consequences. Across the County, heartbreaking stories of the death of a loved one cry out for change in our criminal justice system.

In July 2013, Hernan Jaramillo was having a mental health crisis and begged Oakland police officers for his life. Video footage was not released by police until 2 years after his death. It shows Mr. Jaramillo pinned to the ground by OPD officers who ignored his cries of “I can’t breathe.” That same cry was heard around the world on May 25, 2020, and the murder of George Floyd under similar circumstances galvanized the fight for racial justice. DA O’Malley’s office reviewed OPD’s investigation and concluded that no officer should be charged with anything.

In August 2018, Jacob Bauer was having a mental health crisis. His parents had contacted the Pleasanton police multiple times before the incident to warn them of Jacob’s mental illness and plead for care and mercy if police encountered him. As many as eight (8) police officers violently restrained Jacob. They tasered him and pinned him to the ground by kneeling on his body while he cried out in pain, saying “I can’t breathe.” Within minutes Jacob lay unconscious as an officer struck him in the legs with his baton and then stomped on Jacob’s chest three times. Paramedics who arrived on scene were at first denied access to the unconscious Jacob by Pleasanton police officers. DA O’Malley cleared all of the officers of any wrongdoing. Jacob Bauer’s parents have also endorsed me in the race for Alameda County District Attorney.

In April 2020, San Leandro police shot and killed Steven Taylor in a Walmart store on a Saturday afternoon. Steven Taylor was allegedly mentally ill, with a diagnosis of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. He appears to be in a mental health crisis when 2 San Leandro police officers approach him. He refused to put down a bat and pulled away as the officers tased him. They then shot and killed him in front of dozens of shoppers. The video shows that an officer actually tased Steven Taylor as he lay on the floor bleeding to death. Only one officer has been charged by DA O’Malley, her first ever prosecution of a police officer for an in-custody death.

Reversing Approaches to Alameda County’s 51–50 Crisis

In May 2020, I introduced a resolution at the Alameda County Democratic Party Central Committee to call for an independent investigation into Steven Taylor’s murder. The resolution called upon the California Attorney General to “investigate, manage, prosecute or inquire about any incidents of use of deadly force by law enforcement officers to ensure that the laws of the State are being adequately enforced and in particular, to ensure compliance with AB392 codified as Penal Code Section 835a.” It passed unanimously, but then-Attorney General Xavier Becerra denied the request.

AB392, however, changes the standard for the use of force by police in California. Now, when we talk about “a reasonable police officer” we are questioning the notion that force is the first policeman’s first response to every situation. Additionally, AB1506, California’s Deadly Force Accountability Act, now requires the Attorney General to investigate all police shootings that result in the death of an unarmed civilian and issue a public report of the investigation. The law also requires the Attorney General to establish a unit by 2023 that will review police departments’ use of force policies upon request.

As the next Alameda County District Attorney, my job will include holding every police department in the County accountable under the new standards of conduct. I will also work to ensure that every police department, including the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, is committed to care and concern for those suffering from mental illness and/or addiction. I commit to advocate for the expansion of community-based mental health services with the Board of Supervisors and every decision-maker in our criminal justice system. Our County deserves nothing less and nothing else.

To join the conversation for new approaches to solve Alameda County’s 51–50 Crisis, join me and Hon. Jovanka Beckles on Saturday, May 15th from 3–5 pm. RSVP at https://www.pamelaprice4da.com/mental_health

Pamela Y. Price is CA Lawyer of the Year in Employment (2002). Champion of Justice. Civil Rights Warrior. Title IX Pioneer. Survivor of Ohio juvenile justice & foster care system.  She ran for Alameda DA in 2018 and is a candidate again for 2022.


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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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