Police training eyed after mentally ill man dies

Posted Aug. 05, 2011, at 8:43 p.m.

FULLERTON, Calif. — Police should have been intimately familiar with Kelly Thomas and his history of mental illness.

Thomas had symptoms of schizophrenia and a 16-year string of arrests for everything from assault with a deadly weapon to public urination to jaywalking. But somehow, things ended differently this time.

Six officers who were trying to search Thomas’ backpack after reports of break-ins at a Fullerton, Calif. transit hub got into a violent fight with the 37-year-old. He later died of severe head and neck injuries.

His death has provoked outrage in the college town southeast of Los Angeles and raised questions about how well police in Fullerton and elsewhere are trained to deal with the mentally ill.

Across the country, there is no rule for how much training, or what kind of training, officers should undergo. Since the mid-1980s, increasing numbers of departments have put some officers through a special training program to learn how to diffuse situations involving the mentally ill.

These so-called crisis intervention teams are often borne out of deadly incidents in which a mentally ill suspect dies in police custody or an officer is killed by a mentally ill person.

“No police officer would believe it is appropriate to kill somebody who has a mental illness,” said Melissa Reuland, a consultant to the Council of State Governments Justice Center who researches this issue.

When it happens, “it is often because there has been a lack of the appropriate tools to deescalate the situation,” she said.

Fullerton officers frequently deal with the homeless because a major cold weather shelter is located in the city.

On July 5, Thomas was sitting on a bench at a transit hub where homeless people congregate, when the officers arrived. Police said he ran when they tried to search his backpack and resisted arrest.

A bystander recorded the incident with a cell phone. A bus surveillance tape showed agitated witnesses describing how officers beat Thomas and used a stun gun on him repeatedly as he cried out for his father.

The police department has called the case an isolated incident and put the six officers on administrative leave. The FBI and the district attorney’s office are investigating.

The prosecutor’s office said the agency is reviewing three videos of the confrontation: two tapes shot by bystanders and another from a police surveillance camera that was fixed on a light pole at the bus stop. They also have the surveillance video taken from the bus that pulled up minutes later.

“There are certain things you can see and there are certain things you can’t see. I’m not going to go into specifics, but no video will ever capture everything,” said Susan Kang Schroeder, chief of staff for the district attorney’s office.

The agency will not release the police surveillance video because of the ongoing investigation, she said.

Sgt. Andrew Goodrich, the Fullerton police department’s spokesman, could not say if the officers involved in the altercation knew Thomas, but the transit hub is around the corner from police headquarters and frequented by homeless people.

“Many of our officers were familiar with Kelly Thomas like they’re familiar with many of the other homeless people in our town,” he said.

On Friday, the National Alliance on Mental Illness urged the city to review its officer training programs and involve individuals and families who live with mental illness in the process.

Fullerton officers don’t undergo a training program specifically dedicated to dealing with people with mental illness, Goodrich said. The department holds 30-minute in-house briefings before patrol shifts begin and Goodrich said the department would spend several sessions on mental health issues in a six-month period.

About a dozen officers from the 145-member force have received more extensive training on mental health issues. After Thomas’ death, the department is taking a closer look at its training program, Goodrich said.

Some agencies send officers to weeklong training courses on the subject. Some programs have been expanded to the state level, such as in Utah, Ohio and Florida, but not in California.

Making the training more realistic — instead of a lecture with Power Point slides — makes a difference, Reuland said.

Trainers have officers wear headsets playing aggressive voices while they perform basic tasks like buying a soda to understand the world from the perspective of someone who is mentally ill.

Actors or mental health professionals simulate real life scenarios officers might face on the beat.

The program dates back more than two decades to Memphis, Tenn., after a police officer fatally shot someone who suffered from mental illness. Since then, crisis intervention teams have been expanded to more than 2,000 locations, said retired police Major Sam Cochran, who helped start the program and is now promoting it nationwide.

In California, police departments in San Jose and Oakland train officers under the program, and San Francisco is developing a team of core officers who can be summoned to respond to someone who is mentally ill.

The Los Angeles Police Department gives all officers an 8-hour training course on mental illness and has given more than 1,000 a more extensive 40-hour training course, said recently retired Capt. Rick Wall, who coordinated the department’s mental health program.

The agency also pairs up a plain-clothed officer with a social worker in specialized teams to respond to calls related to mental illness in the hopes of connecting individuals with the services they need — not just locking them up, he said.

The program has been successful and has helped defuse potentially dangerous confrontations, Wall said, but cautioned that training can only go so far.

“The reality is, the best programs, even the best trained officers, will have those encounters with persons whose mental illness is so severe at that particular contact that it is going to be violent,” he said. “There is no magic wand.”

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Taxin reported from Santa Ana. Associated Press writer Thomas Watkins contributed to this report from Los Angeles and Garance Burke from San Francisco.

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