After Kelly Thomas, police rework procedures
After Kelly Thomas, cops redo procedures
SANTA ANA – Among the last words Kelly Thomas said before police beat him unconscious a year ago were these:
Thirteen times: "I'm sorry."
Seventeen times: "Help me."
And no fewer than 10 times, as police swarmed on top of the mentally ill homeless man: "I can't breathe."
Those words still echo through Orange County.
They're why two retired cops are talking in the cafeteria of the Santa Ana Police Department.
"We realized this could happen again," says Randy Beckx, the first policeman in Orange County to work exclusively with the mentally ill homeless. "We wanted to try to do something."
Across the table, Santa Ana's most decorated officer, John Follo, adds: "Everyone is saying, 'We want to do our job better.' "
They have an idea.
In 1991, a video of four white police officers beating Rodney King with batons became a symbol of police brutality against minorities. It led to three days of L.A. riots which left 55 dead and more than 2,000 injured.
It also sparked change in police tactics.
Now a video of six Fullerton police officers beating Kelly Thomas unconscious – leading to his death last year – has become a symbol of police brutality against the mentally ill. The two Fullerton police officers charged in the case have pleaded not guilty and await trial.
Regardless of that outcome, some believe change again is needed – by training police how to recognize those with mental illness, how to approach them and, if necessary, how to arrest them.
"Tactics aren't written in concrete," Follo says. "Tactics evolve."
So he and Beckx have created a federally funded pilot program called "Contacting the Mentally Ill."
Other training classes address this issue – but none offer what Follo and Beckx have in mind.
Faye lived in the bushes at 6th Street and Flower.
She was the first homeless person that Randy Beckx helped get off the street, back in 1999.
"People like Faye were transparent," says Beckx, a 32-year veteran who still works part-time for the Santa Ana police. "We saw them every day. Then one day it hit me: 'She's over 70 and living on the street. This is not normal.' "
Beckx walked into the county's Health Care Agency and spoke to the director, who agreed to help. Their goal? Stop the cycle of homelessness-arrest-jail-homelessness that repeated itself – for one mentally ill man, 70 times!
Santa Ana became the county's first police department to partner with mental health clinicians to do this. And Beckx became the first officer in the program.
The effort eventually grew into the Santa Ana Police Department's Civic Center Patrol – eight officers who deal with the city's homeless population every day. They mingle, talk, sometimes help and sometimes make arrests.
How many of those chronically homeless suffer mental illness?
"I'd say it's as high as 95 percent," he says.
Beckx is an expert in helping those with mental illness. But he needed an expert in going "hands on," or making arrests.
For that, he turned to Follo, who worked 26 years on Santa Ana's SWAT team, including four years as supervisor.
"We don't get in trouble talking to people," Follo says. "It's when we put our hands on people – when we try to force them do something they don't want to do."
Especially with the mentally ill. At times, their fear of noise or lights or people comes off as resisting arrest. Police need to know this. At other times, they can exhibit almost superhuman strength or resistance to pain, which can escalate a confrontation. Police need to know this, too.
"They're driving motivation is fear," Beckx says. "Fear of you."
He and Follo enlisted other experts to help: Dr. Charles Nguyen, president of the OC Psychiatric Society; two attorneys with Judge Wendy Lindley's "Homeless Court;" and Reza Karkia, a criminal justice commissioner who's served four California governors.
They even won support from Homeland Security.
Jared Loughner, who shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords last year, leaving 6 dead and 13 wounded – is said to be schizophrenic.
Scott Dekraai, arrested in last year's Salon Meritage shooting that left eight dead in Seal Beach – is said to be bipolar.
Mental illness haunted "Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski. And Columbine shooter Eric Harris. And possibly James Holmes, arrested in last month's Colorado theater shooting that left 12 dead and 58 wounded.
"Studies show that lone wolf terrorists are likely to suffer from some psychiatric disorder," Beckx says.
It doesn't mean everyone with mental illness is violent, he is quick to add. But if police can identify those they arrest with signs of mental illness – and steer them into the health care system rather than the prison system – it might save lives.
That's why Rep. Sanchez, who sits on the Homeland Security Committee, supports the class.
"I think this training could be used by everyone in and out of law enforcement," Sanchez's Homeland Security liaison, Raul Luna, says of the class. "I would hope it goes national."
"I CAN'T BREATHE"
We're in a classroom with 36 police officers, firefighters, mental health workers and terrorism experts from around the county talking about mental illness for eight hours.
The Kelly Thomas case is not discussed here – police don't like to critique other police – but there are echoes.
"If someone is saying, 'I can't breathe,' and four or five police are on him, you should take him seriously," Follo tells the class. "You need to get off him."
Other instructors describe indications of mental illness; calming techniques; arrest tactics; and how to write police reports so the mentally ill won't fall through the cracks.
It's comprehensive. And it sheds light on an issue long kept in the dark, not just by police but by society in general.
"Now I know, 'Oh, this is their mindset,' " Orange Fire Dept. Capt. Alan Velasco, also a terrorism liaison officer for the O.C. Intelligence Assessment Center, says later. "Sometimes they're combative just because we wear a badge."
The question now is: Will this work on the streets?
Santa Ana's Civic Center Patrol starts before dawn.
They call out hellos to Stephanie, who believes she's getting a multi-million-dollar settlement. And Paul, who's been sleeping here 13 years, yet denies he's homeless. And Gina, who says: "Sometimes it snows when it's hot."
The officers chat; give assurances when they can – and citations when necessary.
"We try to strike a balance," says Santa Ana Police officer Joe Hamlin.
That balance can range from jail, to Homeless Court (designed to keep them out of jail), to forced psychiatric evaluation.
All eight members of the Civic Center Patrol took the inaugural "Contacting the Mentally Ill" class.
"I've never done a class that in-depth," says Hamlin.
That's the idea, say Beckx and Follo, whose message essentially boils down to this: Recognize signs of mental illness, and learn the proper tactics to deal with it.
Back on the street, Hamlin finishes talking to Gina, her fingernails black with grime and her hair buzz-cut in places because of lice.
"Sometimes it's hard," Hamlin says. "You don't want to let her go on with her delusions, but she's not a danger."
This time, he lets her carry on. Sometimes, that's the best tactic of all.
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