By Joe Livernois
For almost two decades, Monterey County has been trying to bridge tensions between law enforcement and citizens who are in the throes of mental health crises. It was among the first jurisdictions in the nation to establish a countywide Crisis Intervention Training academy, and state Sen. Anna Caballero is pushing legislation that would require every police officer in California to receive similar crisis training.
The Monterey County program was developed 19 years ago in an effort to keep cops from barging into someone’s mental health crisis with guns blazing and to teach officers skills to calm and defuse many of the unstable situations they confront without killing anyone.
It is an intensive 40-hour police training designed to ensure the safety of people who are in a crisis they can’t control, with a goal of getting them the help they need rather than sending them through the criminal justice system, according to Melanie Rhodes, who coordinates the Crisis Intervention Training for the Monterey County Behavioral Health Department. In addition to practical training on effective de-escalation skills, the training brings officers face to face with mental health consumers, family members and professionals who have what is known as “lived experiences” with police encounters.
“I look at CIT as a weeklong conversation about these topics,” Rhodes said.
The crisis training may have saved lives and prevented unneeded injuries throughout Monterey County since 1998. That was the year Charles Vaughn was shot and killed by Seaside police officers while he stood on the roof of an apartment building brandishing a corkscrew. The community responded angrily to shooting of Vaughn, a respected educator who had been trying to deal with his schizophrenia. But from that death came an innovative Crisis Intervention Training Academy that was unlike any other in the nation at the time.
While hundreds of police departments around the world offer CIT training to officers, researchers have struggled to quantify just how effective the program is and whether it indeed reduces injuries. A 2012 study of Chicago police interactions with people impaired by mental illness seemed to conclude that arrests and injury rates were about equal to police interactions with others. But a 2014 study for the National Institute for Health indicated that CIT-trained officers are less likely to arrest people they encounter with a behavioral disorder, and are more likely to transport them to mental health facilities.
In Monterey County, more than 1,000 officers have gone through the 40-hour training and Kontrena McPheter has seen most of them. McPheter has been a participating presenter at CIT training for a dozen years. And by now she has a sense for the attitudes she faces in those trainings.
“We have a lot of officers who take it to heart,” she said. “Some more than others.”
McPheter said she takes each officer-involved shooting personally and for the past month she has been tracking news of the March 1 shooting of 20-year-old Brenda Rodriguez Mendoza by officers in Salinas. According to reports, Mendoza barricaded herself in a car parked in a private driveway.
The Monterey County Weekly reported that the victim’s boyfriend said she had been suffering from postpartum depression and had earlier told her mother she wanted to die. According to reports, Mendoza had a soft-pellet gun in the car. A mobile mental health crisis team was summoned to try to calm the woman down. But at some point, police took over and she was shot to death after officers pleaded with her to get out of the car.
The District Attorney on Tuesday released video from police body cameras that included significant efforts by officers on the scene to talk to Mendoza, in both English and Spanish. Officers apparently saw the gun in the car and pleaded with her to get out of the vehicle so they could get her to a mental health specialist. Officers at the scene had been told that she was paranoid, had been hearing voices and was suicidal and, on several different occasions, Mendoza threatened to shoot officers.
“It sounds like they did everything they could,’ said McPheter, a mental health peer. “Sorrowfully, it didn’t work out.” It could have happened to her, she says. It could still happen to her. McPheter is the program coordinator for Success Over Stigma at Interim Inc., the Monterey County agency that specializes in housing people with mental health diagnoses. Her mission is to reduce the stigma that comes with mental health, and she says her participation in CIT is meant to “try to save one more life.”
“My pitch to the officers at CIT is this: You’ve met my symptoms. You’ve met my side effects. Now meet Kontrena. I’m your neighbor, I’m a mother and I’m a daughter. I can be your friend. And if I was your friend, or your daughter, I know you would exhaust every avenue available to you to get me out of the situation I’m in without killing me. Treat me like you would treat your loved ones.”
In addition to getting more detailed instruction about how to respond and talk to people going through crises, the training introduces officers to survivors of mental health trauma, as well as loved ones. They describe what it’s like to live with mental illness and how they were treated by officers who did not know how to respond to them when they were in crisis.
McPheter promotes CIT as a personal crusade, and she is motivated by the officer-involved shooting of a family friend, Charles Vaughn Jr., in Seaside in 1998. (See accompanying story.) She was honored for her work with a special award by Crisis Intervention Training International when the organization met in Monterey in 2014.
Despite her efforts and the success stories, police-involved shootings continue to happen in Monterey County. In the year that McPheter won the prestigious international award, Salinas officers shot and killed four different men who had been acting irrationally on city streets.
Two years later, a Department of Justice investigation of the Salinas Police Department found that officers were not receiving regular training on how to effectively respond and to de-escalate situations involving people with mental-health issues. The police chief at the time, Kelly McMillin, had invited the DOJ analysis in response to growing community concern to the four officer-involved shootings.
“Salinas has always been a problem,” said Mel Mason, a community activist from Seaside who has been tracking police-involved shootings in Monterey County since Vaughn, his best friend, was killed. “They’ve got a cowboy mentality over there.”
Salinas Police Chief Adele Fresé was among several local police administrators who did not return phone calls from Voices seeking comment about Crisis Intervention Training.
“I know that officers are under a lot of stress at the time they’re dealing with people in a mental health crisis,” said McPheter. “They (encounter) people who are at the worst moment of their lives, and they’re going to take their lives? I feel for officers who pull that trigger. They will be forever haunted by the decisions they make. In many cases, there are other ways. They need to talk more. They need to use everything they are trained to do before using lethal force.”
Crisis Intervention Training might never stop all officer-involved deaths of people in a mental health crisis, but Sen. Anna Caballero, D-Salinas, said she believes better training can reduce the death toll while improving the relations police agencies have with their communities.
Not all officers working in Monterey County have received the training, and not all counties in California provide a program like Crisis Intervention Training.
Caballero last month introduced Senate Bill 230, which would require every police officer in about 500 police agencies to receive crisis training. It would also require each police agency to establish standards and procedures governing the use of force.
“We need to make certain police officers respond appropriately and we need to set up a system that will hold departments accountable about getting rid of the bad apples,” Caballero said.
Caballero said she believes SB 230 would eliminate or reduce the number of officer-involved shootings in the state by requiring de-escalation training and creating an accountability system for each police agency.
A former mayor of Salinas, Caballero said she was on the City Council during several fatal police-involved shootings. One of them she recalled, involved a man in a mental health crisis who barricaded himself in the family home. The family called police with the expectation that officers would calm him down.
“The family said they never would have called the police if they had known he would end up dead,” Caballero said.
The bill would require training of officer candidates about de-escalation techniques, with occasional follow-up trainings. It would also require training of all current officers that have not been through crisis programs. The trainings would be funded by the state, but Caballero said a cost analysis had not yet been made.
If police-involved shootings are to end, Caballero said, “one of keys is to change police culture with education and training. Police work has become much more complicated. There are more people with mental-health issues and more people have access to street drugs that cause severe (psychotropic) problems.”
Rhodes said that police administrators throughout Monterey County are committed to CIT, and each has said they want all of their officers to have the training. Monterey County schedules three trainings each year, and each training typically has 30 officers in attendance. The training in Monterey County meets Police Officer Standards Training and participating officers receive POST credits.
During the course of the week, officers learn the signs and symptoms of the common mental health diagnoses they might encounter on the streets and instruction on how to engage the people they see who show the signs. They learn the legal and liability issues associated with their responses,. They learn verbal de-escalation strategies. They participate in a “voice hearing experience” that allows them to learn a more about schizophrenia. They tour the mental health unit at Natividad Medical Center and they spend listen to panels consumers who talk about their experiences. Rhodes said the CIT program recently introduced a unit about working with opioid addictions.
“It’s a very powerful week,” Rhodes said. “If what they learn changes an encounter they have in the community in a positive way, it is worth the effort.”
About seven years ago in Carmel, a police officer in town encountered a threatening-looking man in the throes of a psychotic episode. Officer Chris Johnson had run into the man in the past and was aware of his erratic behavior, as well as the dark and threatening messages he had been posting on social media.
But on this particular early morning on the dark streets of Carmel, Johnson barely recognized the man, disheveled and ranting, screaming into the darkness. The man was becoming more aggressive and seemed increasingly unreasonable. One thing led to another; Johnson and two other officers wrestled around the pavement with the large man who had been showing symptoms of schizophrenic behavior.
No guns were drawn. No one died. The young man was eventually subdued. Rather than throwing the man in jail on charges alleging assault on peace officer, officers drove him to a psychiatric hold unit in Salinas.
“I could have taken him to county jail,” Johnson said a couple years later. “But he wasn’t a criminal. He was sick and he needed help.”
Johnson had participated in the county’s Crisis Intervention Training program. During the CIT program, he said, he learned that a reactive and harsh response to potentially explosive scenarios often makes matters worse.
More than 20 years after Vaughn’s death, and after initial misgivings, most police administrators consider their participation in the Crisis Intervention Training program an important tool in which officers learn skills that prevent them from killing the most vulnerable people in their cities. Across California, local police agencies are finding that the investment of time and resources for the 40-hour program is significantly cheaper than the millions of dollars cities are often on the hook for to settle claims filed against them by families of victims.
For instance, a judge in Mendocino County earlier this month accepted a $5 million settlement in a wrongful death settlement — and the judge also ordered deputies, correctional officers and Willits police officers to participate in a crisis intervention training program. In that case, the family of a 55-year-old claimed that peace officers were seen on jail video joking about the man’s bizarre behavior and laughing about his fear of snakes.
The man was apparently going through a schizophrenic episode when police held him face-down on the ground, with his hands handcuffed and ankles shackled, in a sobering cell at the Mendocino County Jail as a medical staff member watched. Sharing in the liability were Mendocino County, the city of Willits and California Forensic Medical Group.
As part of the settlement, deputies, correctional officers and Willits police officers will be required to participate in crisis intervention training. (California Forensic Medical Group is headquartered in Monterey County and provides medical care in prisons and jails throughout California.)
Alade Djehuti-Mes, the son of Charles Vaughn Sr., was an early advocate for CIT after the shooting death of his father hands of Seaside police in 1998. He believes the training lets officers know that good outcomes can result from time and patience. “How much time is a life worth?” he said. “That’s what it usually comes down to.”
He said his father’s death “devastated the family,” He still refers to the shooting as a murder and he believes justice was not served after the District Attorney cleared the officers. But the creation of the crisis intervention academy that sprung from the incident at least gives him some comfort.
“I think CIT does make a difference,” Alade Djehuti-Mes said. “I think it has made a difference.” It is difficult to quantify numbers of potentially fatal outcomes that did not happen because of the training. “But I do know that there have been lives not taken because of it.”
Editor’s note: Joe Livernois is president of the Monterey County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which was one of the local agencies that lobbied for CIT before his involvement.
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