LA County

Deputies Get More Training for Dealing With Mentally Ill

Added training is intended to provide deputies with additional skills to de-escalate incidents so that they can be resolved without force.

The call from dispatch sends a patrol deputy to check on a man behaving strangely.

"May be mentally ill," the dispatcher adds.

It is the type of dispatch that's already been answered by every one of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputies watching this scenario unfold on video as part of a new training program for dealing with the mentally ill.

These calls present special challenges, said Stephen Johnson, a commander with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

The added training is intended to provide deputies with additional skills to de-escalate incidents so that they can be resolved without force.

"About 40 percent of our use of force incidents are related to persons who have some kind of mental health issues," said Johnson. "So that's an indicator to us to the great need for the training."

The eight-hour program was launched a year ago. It has been taken so far by some 600 deputies, about 10 percent of the department's patrol force.

The issue has received renewed attention in the past year after a series of high-profile encounters between various law enforcement agencies and people with mental illness.

One incident last July occurred after a CHP officer responded to calls of a homeless woman on foot at the edge of the Santa Monica Freeway. Cellphone video recorded the officer repeatedly striking the woman after she was down on the ground. In the Los Angeles police cases of Ezell Ford, Charly Keunang, and Brendon Glenn, the unarmed were shot to death.

"Learning these skills we're teaching today will greatly reduce the amount of, or requirement for force," said Steven Sultan, a clinical psychologist who led the development of the training program for the Sheriff's Department.

Thursday's class was for deputies from the East LA Sheriff's station.

"It's pretty common," said Deputy Justin Waites of calls that bring him in contact with disturbed individuals affected by mental illness or substance abuse. "You just try to talk to them to determine where their state of mind is."

Just last week, Deputy Stacy Buckband responded to a call of a disturbed woman on foot darting in and out of traffic near a busy intersection. The woman initially was nonresponsive to Buckband's questions, and at one point held a cigarette as if to try to burn her, the deputy said, but did not resist being handcuffed.

The woman later threatened to a kick a backup deputy who responded, but did not, and ultimately was booked for public intoxication, according to Buckband.

"If we can speak with them and calm them down, that's what we try to do," Buckband said. As long as they are not hurting themselves or others, we have time on our side."

"That's one fundamental: take control of the tempo of the incident, and make it work in your favor, so you have a better outcome," said Johnson.

In the scenario presented, a man with obvious mental illness is at first nonresponsive, and by putting his hand inside a bag he is holding, raises the concern of the responding deputy that the man may be reaching for a gun inside.

A second arriving deputy employs a series of techniques to establish a rapport with the man, who agrees to drop the bag and be handcuffed.

It was, by the psychologist instructors acknowledgment, a simpler and less volatile scenario than deputies often face in the field, but demonstrated techniques that could be applied in other situations.

Sultan spoke of a "window of opportunity" early on in encounters for deputies to get cooperation.

In July, deputies assigned to the custody division will begin receiving training under a longer, 32-hour program being implemented to comply with terms of a federal consent decree. The LA County jail system, operated by the Sheriff's Department, has been under federal monitoring since a 2002 agreement calling for improvements in jail conditions, particularly the care afforded inmates with mental health issues. Funding for the additional training for jails personnel has already been allocated by the County board of supervisors.

Sheriff Jim McDonnell has said since taking office last December that he hopes to expand training to a 32-hour program for patrol deputies as well, but is still seeking funding to cover the estimated $13 million expense of the training itself, and staffing overtime to replace deputies pulled from patrol for the week of training.

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