In January of last year, Rachel Hernandez-Meyer, a volunteer with the Ventura chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) led 40 or so Ventura County-area cops through an exercise meant to simulate what a person with schizophrenia might experience. It's part of a 40-hour training module implemented by the county after a rash of officer-involved shootings of people deemed mentally ill.
Hernandez-Meyer told the officers to split into groups of seven or eight. One officer was given a sheet of paper with a list of commands while another officer was given a pen and a piece of paper and instructed to draw shapes based on the commands. The rest of the group surrounded the command recipient and repeated a sentence assigned to them.
“Your mother hates you,” “Your sister doesn't like you,” “The government is out to get you,” they chanted as the person with the pen and paper fumbled to process all the information coming at them. A majority of participants couldn't help but giggle at the ensuing frustration as it became increasingly impossible for the person to draw as instructed.
Welcome to the interior world of a schizophrenic-the unlucky sufferer of perhaps the most difficult-to-treat mental illness. Schizophrenia is marked by auditory and visual hallucinations that increase when the individual is under stress. Hence the almost epidemic difficulty law enforcement has in dealing with schizophrenics, especially those who perceive the police as a threat. Conventional officer training advocates “command presence”-taking an aggressive stance both verbally and physically when a subject won't comply with demands to drop a weapon or not move. That sort of aggression can push a mentally ill individual over the edge.
It's yet to be determined whether Daniel Woodyard, the homeless man shot and killed by a San Diego police officer on Feb. 4 when he allegedly brandished a knife at the officer, suffered from mental illness. However, people who knew Woodyard have recalled behavior that would point to as much and might explain why the evidently confused man refused to drop the knife.
It's estimated that 30 to 60 percent of homeless are mentally ill-a rate that could easily be higher because many homeless don't come in contact with mental health professionals who can properly diagnose them. Additionally, studies have shown that homelessness itself-poor nutrition, exposure and emotional stress-can lead to mental illness. As for the rest of us, the surgeon general estimates that around 20 percent of the adult population suffers from mental illness. Of that 20 percent, slightly more than 5 percent have what's termed “severe and persistent” mental illness.
Unfortunately, it's only been in the last decade that law enforcement experts have given thought to making sure encounters between police and mentally ill don't lead to a tragic outcome. However, the impossibility of fully understanding the realities of mental illness often impedes well-intentioned progress.
According to documents released by the San Diego County District Attorney's Office, there were 23 officer-involved shootings in San Diego County in 2002. Of those, 11 were fatal. Fourteen shootings, or 60 percent, involved individuals exhibiting signs of mental illness. Subsequent investigations by the DA's office ruled all 14 shootings justified citing a police officer's right to use deadly force if they reasonably believe their life, or the lives of others, are in danger.
San Diego Police spokesperson Dave Cohen said officers respond to, on average, 15 “5150” calls-the dispatch code most often associated with mental illness-each day. Training in dealing with these situations, said Cohen, “is more than it's ever been. But, he added, in some situations, officers might not have the time to put their training to use. “They don't have much time to get into these people's heads,” he said.
In August of 2000 the city of San Diego convened a task force to look into the use of excessive force by police officers. Among the group's 100 recommendations were several pertaining to increased training on how to deal with the mentally ill. A task force update two years later still pointed to the need for increased training in dealing with mentally sick people.
The state mandates police academies provide at least 10 hours of training in both understanding mental illness and working with individuals believed to be mentally ill. San Diego Chief of Police David Bejarano said the county's academy goes beyond that.
Of the city's current police force, roughly 400 officers have received additional training in dealing with the mentally ill. Of those 400, 100 have gone through 40 hours of specialized training and are part of the county's nationally recognized Psychiatric Emergency Response Team (PERT). Bejarano said that this year, all officers will receive additional training in communication skills and use of non-lethal force. He added that currently all officers have access to a taser (stun gun) and a beanbag rifle.
However, in Woodyard's case, officers made no attempts to disarm him with non-lethal weapons, a police department official confirmed.
Law enforcement experts say that individuals armed with a knife coming at an officer from 18 feet away or less will injure that officer before he or she has time to step out of the way. Bejarano acknowledged this self-defense rationale but said it isn't a policy of the department to shoot in those situations.