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Appeal to Fullerton PD
Interim Police Chief Dan Hughes

                                                          by Allen R. Kates, MFAW, BCECR

                                                                                                                       Fullerton PD Interim Police Chief, Captain Dan Hughes 

Dear Chief Hughes:

What could Ramos and Cicinelli have done differently during their confrontation with Kelly Thomas? Other police departments have pioneered the way and serve as role models for protecting and serving the mentally ill on America's streets.

Although the Fullerton PD has made some excellent changes in terms of how they interact with the mentally ill, here are several successful police programs and mental health courts we hope you will examine and perhaps apply to your department. All police departments can benefit from these programs.

Program 1

Program 1: Portland, Oregon, Police Bureau’s “Step Back” Program

The Portland, Oregon, Police Bureau is using a fairly new program in dealing with mentally ill people. It’s called “Step Back,” a deliberate go-slow response to people in a mental health crisis or who are mentally ill. Although the idea of walking away from a situation seems against everything a police officer is taught, it is often a good way to deal with a mentally ill person such as Kelly Thomas. In 2011, the Police Bureau trained sergeants in how not to engage people with mental health problems if they are not an obvious threat to others.

Input From Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare

Among the supporters of the Step Back idea is Dr. Derald Walker, president of Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare. Along with other mental health experts and advocates, he meets with police supervisors studying how to eliminate unnecessary police encounters with people suffering from mental illness. This successful yet controversial program has proved both effective and problematic. When is the right time to step away? It is a balancing act that takes some getting used to.

Project Respond, mobile mental crisis officer

In Portland, if police step back from a person, they alert Project Respond, the bureau’s mobile mental crisis officer, who is paired with a mental health worker for follow-up.

To be clear, the Portland Police Bureau has not adopted a policy of walking away from people in a mental health crisis, but they do consider it an option if the public is not at risk and resources can be provided to the person in crisis. It is recommended that a mental health specialist be at the scene of crisis calls to advise public safety.*

Would the outcome have been different if Officer Ramos and Cpl. Cicinelli had decided to talk to Kelly Thomas quietly and respectfully? What would have been the result if Officer Ramos had not threatened Thomas with “fucking up your face”? How positive it might have turned out if Ramos had been able to call in a mental health professional to talk to Thomas.

*Source material: OregonLive.com. The Oregonian, 10/8/2011 "Portland police using new ‘step back’ training to deal with people in mental health crisis."

Contact Information

Acting chief Dan Hughes or eventually his replacement may wish to contact Dr. Derald Walker, president of Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare for more information about the Step Back program. www.cascadiabhc.org. 503-402-8109. Derald.walker@cascadiabhc.org.

Chief Hughes may also wish to speak to the chief of the Portland Police Bureau, Mike Reese. Chief Reese began the Step Back training in the bureau. www.protlandonline.com/police. Chief’s phone number: 503-823-0000. Chief’s fax: 503-823-0342.

Program 2

Program 2: Salt Lake City Police Department

The training the Salt Lake City Police Department gives its officers on how to deal with mentally ill subjects is recognized nationally by the U.S. Justice Department’s Council of State Governments Justice Center as one of 6 law enforcement agencies that serve as a “learning site.” That is, it acts as a center for “peer-to-peer learning for other criminal justice and mental health agencies and organizations.”*

*Source: Deseret News, 1/22/2011

The Salt Lake PD offers Crisis Intervention Team training sessions once weekly to its officers not only on identifying a person with mental illness, but also on assessing what that illness may be and how to interact with the mentally ill. The most important lesson the officers are taught is how to have empathy for a mentally ill person.

Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Burbank is proud to call his department a “learning site for our colleagues in other agencies so that they can build on our successes and learn from the obstacles we have overcome.”

The purpose of their crisis intervention program is to show greater empathy for the mentally ill and to provide the tools that allow officers to de-escalate situations.

Chief Burbank can be contacted at 801-799-3000 slcpd@slcgov.com.

Other Departments That Train Officers About The Mentally Ill

Other acclaimed police departments that train officers on identifying and interacting with the mentally ill are: Los Angeles Police Department; Houston Police Department; Madison Police Department, Madison, Wisconsin; University of Florida Police Department, Gainesville, Florida; and the Portland Police Department, Portland, Maine.

www.consensusproject.org; www.justicecenter.csg.org/national_projects; http://consensusproject.org/learningsites

Program 3

Program 3: Integrated Recovery Network

A role model for the city of Fullerton, CA, that would have a huge impact on the police department is Integrated Recovery Network of Los Angeles. Run by Executive Director Marsha Temple, the program attempts to break the cycle of the mentally ill committing crimes, landing in jail, serving a short sentence, and then being tossed out onto the street again with no services, help or follow-up.

With public and private funding, Temple’s agency connects with mentally ill clients while still in jail, and steers them into therapy, medication and housing and assigns them a caseworker who checks on them regularly. Most important, the caseworkers are relentless in staying connected to their clients and getting them support services. Schizophrenics have difficulty formulating and carrying out plans, so they need guidance by a professional. Structure, medication, housing and a caring, knowledgeable person to keep them on track are essential. I have to admit that I did not see much result from talk therapy, but human contact helps schizophrenics stay grounded.

Would a program such as Integrated Recovery Network have helped Kelly Thomas, and maybe saved his life? It’s hard to say, as he resisted treatment, medication and even housing. However, as I personally witnessed as a mental health counselor, once mentally ill people, especially schizophrenics, are on medication for a short time, they often respond positively and accept the program. It’s better than dumpster diving for food or languishing in jail where they are often neglected, beaten and raped.

Schizophrenics need to be persuaded to try the program by a skillful, caring counselor. Forcing them is often counterproductive, but in some cases may be the only way to break their cycle of repetitive, self-destructive behavior. In the cases I saw, court mandated participation in a residential or outpatient program has had good results. Compassionate but firm judges seem to have a positive impact on the mentally ill.

Particularly, in a place like Orange County where the second highest population of homeless people in California live, nearly half of them mentally ill, a program like this would cut down on jail overcrowding, reduce the trauma that the mentally ill endure, and take a huge burden off the police department.

Orange County and the Fullerton PD may wish to give Marsha Temple a call about her successful program. 213-977-9447. mtemple@integratedrecoverynetwork.org. www.integratedrecoverynetwork.org.

Mental Health Courts

For further investigation and input, the Justice Center has identified five outstanding mental health courts as “learning sites.” Mental health courts link mentally ill offenders, who are usually sent to jail, to long-term, community-based treatment. In essence, the mental health courts act as Crisis Intervention Teams and jail diversion programs.

For model mental health courts, Orange County or the Fullerton PD may wish to contact the Washoe County Multi-Jurisdictional Mental Health Court, Reno, Nevada; Bonneville County Mental Health Court, Idaho Falls, Idaho; Akron Municipal Mental Health Court, Akron, Ohio; Dougherty Superior Court Mental Health Substance Abuse Division, Albany, Georgia; or the Bronx County Mental Health Court, Bronx, New York.*

If Fullerton had had a mental health court, Kelly Thomas might be alive today.

*Source: www.consensusproject.org; www.justicecenter.csg.org/national_projects; http://consensusproject.org/learningsites

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