The recent police-involved shooting in El Cajon that led to the death of Alfred Olango who was claimed by his sister as mentally ill sparked protests in the San Diego suburb. This and other related incidents across the country underscore the challenges of making split-second decisions and knowing how to de-escalate without resorting to violence.

During the incident, one officer opened fire while another one deployed his Taser. A vape smoking device was recovered from Olango, an object that he rapidly drew from his pocket and pointed at an officer while he assumed a shooting stance.

The video below captured by a surveillance camera and a cell phone of a witness was initially withheld and the police department released a photo instead. But following some public protests, it was finally released.

At one point, Olango’s sister asked an officer, “Don’t you guys have a crisis communication team to talk to somebody mentally sick?”

As the situation appeared to unfold quickly, “there was no time to call for a mental health crisis team,” Ed Obayashi, a Plumas County, CA, sheriff’s deputy, and legal advisor said. According to him, even training officers to de-escalate interactions with the mentally ill may not have helped in this case.

“When those hands come up in a shooting stance, the officer wouldn’t have time to assess whether what is in the hands is a gun,” Obayashi said. “Almost immediately, the officer sees the hands flash up into a shooting stance, he must react. A second will be too late if it’s a firearm.”

“These things happen in split seconds,” former LAPD Capt. Greg Meyer, who oversaw mental health training and testifies in use-of-force trials, agreed. He said the officers didn’t have time to see if the Taser alone would have subdued him.

The key to dealing with the mentally ill is to calm the situation. An officer can begin a conversation to reduce tension and de-escalate the situation. This is what Sam Cochran, a retired major with the Memphis police who pioneered mental health policing in the U.S., said.

He noted, however, every situation is different and dealing with a man with his hands in his pockets and refusing to cooperate can be tough.

To help officers de-escalate situations before they turn deadly, particularly when those situations involve someone with a mental illness, some law enforcement agencies in the Tampa Bay area are teaching necessary skills.

“With them being able to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental illness they can see if someone is escalating and giving those skills to be able to calm that person and bring them down to where they’re not trying to go hands-on,” said Pinellas County Sheriff’s Corporal Thomas Kelley, who teaches the Crisis Intervention Team training program to everyone in the agency from deputies on the street to 911 dispatchers to people working in jails.

“Not only are the road deputies seeing this on the streets, but now we’re taking these people from the streets into jail and now they’re having to be treated in the facility.”

Many jails have become some of the largest mental health institutions in the United States due to a lack of resources for mentally ill people outside of the criminal justice system.

“I was taken aback by the vast numbers of people that we have coming through jail that actually has mental issues,” said Pinellas County Detention Sergeant Serena Bennett. “Many of them are coming to us rather than going to those facilities that just treat mental illnesses and so we need to have the capability and the know-how to deal with them on a daily basis.”

“This helps me understand a lot more what these folks are going through,” said Deputy Chris Hink, a Pinellas County Detention Officer who graduated from the program on Friday.

“We have a big mental illness problem as a whole in the United States as a whole, not just in Florida, and it needs to be taken care of.”

It also has been reported that half of all those killed during encounters with the police every year in the United States have mental illnesses.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, about 6 percent of the U.S. population, or 1 in 17 people, have a mental illness. Across the United States, prisons and jails now house 10 times more individuals with mental illness than state psychiatric hospitals.

In a conference on policing in the 21st century held by the University of Wisconsin at Platteville earlier this month, Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney told the audience, “We have become mental health workers because of the work that we do.” He said that nearly half the people his deputies took into custody are suffering from chronic mental illness.

Mahoney noted that his deputies are dealing with situations they were never trained for. “They didn’t enter this profession, for this reason, never given the tools of the mental health profession that they need. … They provide a service to those with mental health issues we as a society fail to provide.”

“Jails are not intended to house individuals with a mental health crisis,” Mahoney stated, adding he has been a vocal proponent for having those in crisis taken out of the jail, feeling it’s inhumane to deal with them in that setting.

One of the ways agencies have addressed mental health training needs is through Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training. The CIT model was created more than 25 years ago in Memphis, Tennessee, after the fatal shooting by police officers of a knife-wielding man who had mental health issues. CIT training helps law enforcement officers recognize and understand mental illness, teaches them how to better assist individuals in crisis, and provides information about available resources.

 

Currently, only 10 percent of police departments across the United States require CIT training. But Richmond, Virginia, Police Chief Ray Tarasovic took a proactive approach and made CIT training mandatory for all department personnel—sworn and civilian in 2013, as he recognized the importance of dealing appropriately with people who have mental and emotional illnesses.

Richmond Police Department personnel receive 40 hours of training regarding mental illness and the proper handling of situations in which they come in contact with the public. For sworn officers, such training takes place upon hire, as well as throughout their career during state-mandated, in-service training. Police recruits receive two training sessions (a total of 12 hours) upon hire prior to any work in the field.

Richmond Police Department took another step and established a new multijurisdictional Crisis Triage Center (CTC) at HCA Virginia’s Tucker Pavilion at Chippenham Hospital, combining medical, psychiatric, law enforcement, and emergency mental health resources in a one-stop shop.

CTC is designed to provide the suitable treatment for people in a mental health crisis that are brought in on an emergency custody order in a medical environment instead of simply putting them in incarceration. This also allows officers to return to their patrols and assignments in a more timely and efficient manner.

While CIT or related training may be costly, it is important to recognize that departments and the community may pay an even higher price in liability and undesired outcomes if it is proven that officers are deficient in necessary training for dealing with persons with mental illness.