First Do No Harm
Monterey County's finest learn how to deal compassionately with the mentally ill.
Thursday, April 27, 2000
Monterey County''s mentally ill population is likely to feel (and probably actually be) a bit safer next month when 30 local law enforcement officers complete Monterey County''s new crisis intervention training program. The program, designed to reduce police use of lethal force on mentally ill people, is also welcomed by local mental health activists as a long-awaited step in the right direction.
But the victory is somewhat bittersweet. Charles Vaughn Jr., whose schizophrenic father was killed by Seaside police in 1998, puts it this way: "I''m pleased that they''re actually going to institute a program that''s going to save lives of people who have mental illnesses," he says. "But I''m sad that it took my dad''s life to be able to get to the point we''re at now."
Vaughn Sr. was on the roof of a Seaside apartment building and armed with a corkscrew when police shot him in May 1998. According to his son, he hadn''t harassed anyone or even threatened to take his own life when police decided to commit him involuntarily and began pursuing him, a decision that ultimately led to Vaughn''s death.
Activists first started calling for better police training in 1992 when a Marina police officer shot and killed Fidelino Pascua after he locked himself in a bathroom with a knife. After Seaside police killed Vaughn, community activists established a task force to push for the training. But Mel Mason, a friend of Vaughn and chair of the task force, claims that in the beginning, county officials were recalcitrant at best.
Mason says that when his task force first approached mental health officials and police chiefs, they responded that the group''s proposals were "unreasonable, infeasible, and that there was no money available"--this in spite of the fact that Vaughn was the fourth mentally ill man to die at the hands of local law enforcement officers.
Mental health and law enforcement officials finally did establish their own ad hoc task force to address the issue on a countywide basis. But before activists began to see a truly comprehensive effort emerge, the Vaughn family filed a $10 million lawsuit against Seaside and the county, and Vaughn Jr. went on a hunger strike.
Now police and mental health officials are implementing not only the training academy, but also a series of protocols for helping mentally ill people in crisis situations. Previously, "there was a feeling that mental health was not a police issue," says Mike Klein, Sand City''s police chief and chair of the county''s ad hoc task force. The fact that patrol officers are usually the first to respond to reports of someone acting in a bizarre or dangerous manner, he says, "makes it our issue."
The first four-day, 40-hour crisis intervention training (CIT) academy, which will begin on May 1, is designed to teach officers how to identify people who may be in the midst of a mental health crisis, as well as what it means to be mentally ill.
Two academies are planned each year. The first 30 academy attendees have been hand-selected from a pool of volunteers, but Klein says that ultimately, the plan is for every officer to attend the training.
Klein''s task force has also established agreements with local hospitals so officers will know where to send someone they decide to hospitalize on an involuntary basis. And AMR, the local ambulance service, has agreed to transport involuntary commitments at a reduced fee. Such commitments don''t usually require emergency medical care, explains Klein, but transporting a mentally person in the back of a police car in handcuffs and leg irons often increases trauma. "We end up delivering them in worse condition than we found them," he says.
To ensure that all law enforcement departments will always be covered, even when their own CIT-trained officers are off-duty, Klein says that local police departments are in the final stages of reaching an agreement for sharing CIT-trained officers, as well as non-lethal weapons such as beanbag guns.
The last piece of what Klein calls the task force''s "holistic approach" is to develop an arrangement whereby officers can call for assistance from a psychologist or psychiatrist on an as-needed basis. While no system will be failsafe, says Klein, he expects to be able to "sit fairly easy" when this last element of the comprehensive plan is nailed down.
Klein diplomatically credits a large number of people for getting the task force to its present position. Some of the new protocols, he says, are very complicated and required the cooperation of numerous organizations. He also notes that those in Mason''s group were "instrumental in that they always kept the issue in front of the public''s eye." They were the "squeaky wheel, the voice of society''s conscience," he says.
Jay Foss concurs. An ad hoc task force member and treasurer of the Monterey chapter of the Alliance for the Mentally Ill, he says the Mason group "kept our noses to the grindstone." He concedes that he saw some "heel dragging" on the part of police early in the process. But in the end, he says, "everyone got together in a most impressive way. This is one of the greatest community efforts we''ve seen."
Mason still points to the fact that the task force was a proverbial day late; last year, as the task force worked away on its protocols, Joe Hernandez became the fifth mentally ill man to be killed by local law enforcement when he was shot multiple times by Salinas police officers.
Fortunately, no one is saying the plan is a dollar short. Everyone thinks the new protocols are a big step in the right direction. Says Mason, the establishment of the new program means "these unfortunate [mentally ill] people will not have died in vain."
Yet both Mason and Vaughn, Jr. say they will remain vigilant to ensure that all the new agreements are fully implemented. "People''s consciousness is raised now," says Vaughn Jr. "But that will fade."
Vaughn Jr. says he also remains concerned that the mental health department is not implementing any new training policies for its social workers. The Vaughn family claims that mistakes made by county social workers fed into the events that led to his father''s death, although interim director of health, Robert Egnew, responds that the county already has a training program for new staffers.
Most of all, Vaughn Jr. hopes that public attitudes about the mentally ill can be changed. He asserts that one of the most misunderstood issues about mentally ill people is that they are not important family members.
"My father, despite being mentally ill, was the head of our household," he says.