Five before Midnight

This site is dedicated to the continuous oversight of the Riverside(CA)Police Department, which was formerly overseen by the state attorney general. This blog will hopefully play that role being free of City Hall's micromanagement.
"The horror of that moment," the King went on, "I shall never, never forget." "You will though," the Queen said, "if you don't make a memorandum of it." --Lewis Carroll


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Location: RiverCity, Inland Empire

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Law enforcement and the mentally ill: The shootings

Philadelphia City Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller plans to call a meeting between community members, the police department and city representatives to discuss the recent increase in fatal officer-involved shootings, according to a Philadelphia Inquirer article.

Philadelphia to look into increase of fatal shootings by police

Miller urged an immediate meeting to look into ways to decrease the police department's shooting rate through a resolution which was signed by the entire city council.

Philadelphia had 20 fatal officer-involved shootings last year, which was the highest among the nation's largest cities. This year, there have been two fatal shootings both happening last month. One involved a mentally ill individual with a knife, the other an unarmed man.

Miller and the rest of the city council are to be applauded for taking the initiative to have a discussion that most other cities try to avoid and that is how to open a dialogue between the city, police department, civilian oversight mechanism and community when a police department's shooting rate increases. It remains to be seen what will come out of it but the first step towards addressing these concerns is to put them out in the open which is what she has done.

Philadelphia is also to be lauded for having an actively engaged community leadership that pushes its elected leadership as well as its police department to discuss these issues with it rather than fretting about them in private and being cautious in public because they are more concerned with what elected officials and police department representatives will think of them as is often the case. After my experiences the past few weeks stemming from being concerned, I can't say I blame them for keeping quiet.

In Riverside, California these discussions are taking place involving the city, the police department, the civilian oversight mechanism as they have been taking place in the community. The difference is that these discussions are taking place in separate corners with all the parties isolated and apart and no one taking the initiative to draw parties into discussions with each other on this issue.

Last year, Riverside had one-sixth the fatal shootings of Philadelphia and about one-fourth the fatal shootings of New York City, but its department employs about 6% of the officers of the former and less than 1% of the officers of the latter. Who can blame community members for noticing this trend and talking about it?

We know there was a discussion among the city council during several closed sessions last November, because five law suits and claims for damages involving four incustody deaths were listed on two meeting agendas for discussion between the city council and its legal counsel on what actions to pursue.

We also know that the police department is on some level discussing them because of the requirement imposed on it to do criticial incident reviews as well as the review processes for the investigations of these deaths themselves.

We also know that the Community Police Review Commission had been subjected in recent weeks to proposed changes to its operations by the city not long after the third fatal shooting occurred and not long after the first fatal shooting of 2006 had come before the commission for discussion. This allegedly occurred after a series of meetings between the city manager's office and the police department beginning in January 2006. Both parties appeared at the latest public safety committee meeting where among those in the room, it appeared that only the community members and commissioners in attendance were in the dark about what had happened to Riverside's only form of civilian oversight over the police department.

The community is also discussing the three fatal shootings last year, as well as the five officer-involved deaths that occurred between October 2005 and November 2006. Three of those deaths and two of the shootings last year involved young Black men. Four involved men who were at least initially, unarmed and three or four involved individuals with health or medical issues impacting their ability to understand the verbal commands of police officers let alone respond to them.

In fact, the number one question that I've heard from community members, is why have there been so many incustody deaths lately particularly involving Black men? For writing or even asking questions on these issues, I have heard through the grapevine about city employees telling other people that I am trying to "instigate something". But these dialogues would still take place and these concerns being discussed throughout the city would be there regardless of any one person as many similar dialogues have taken place in the not so distant past. Just because the city and police department have not done what their counterparts in Philadelphia are doing and invited community members to their tables to discuss these issues does not mean that these discussions are not taking place elsewhere.

The difference for Riverside between now and then is that we're supposed to know better than to keep our discussions apart or isolated, or with two parties, the city and the department, having discussions while the community is waiting to see when if ever, either of its two partners will be willing to participate in discussions with it.

Many community members had expected or at least hoped to see the CPRC itself serve as a mechanism for these discussions as the three fatal shootings from last year came on its agenda. What they have seen so far is much less, not to mention proposed actions taken by the city and department to prohibit the CPRC from initiating its charter-mandated investigation of a fatal incident until after the police department has completed its own investigations. On the other hand, few community members who had lived through the years leading up to the shooting of Tyisha Miller in 1998 were really surprised at the latter development after witnessing what had happened with LEPAC.

But so far, what Philadelphia residents have is the promise of a dialogue. What Riverside has received on the same issue is a soundbyte from Chief Russ Leach at a forum on Jan. 29 after Leslie Braden asked him the question that many people in the city have been asking. Braden also has been personally impacted by the loss of two brothers about a decade apart from officer-involved shootings. The latest, was Joseph Darnell Hill who was shot and killed Oct. 19, 2006 by Officer Jeffrey Adcox. Leach's response to her question as to why there were so many fatal incidents particularly involving people of color, was brief.

"That's a society question. Not a police question."

If that were the entire truth, then there would not really be any need for administrative investigations or reviews into officer-involved deaths. If it's not a "police question", then there is really no need to do these investigations which exist primarily to address "police questions" through the examination of officers' actions to determine whether or not they violated departmental policies or used questionable or improper tactics leading up to and including the shooting. If these incidents did not involve "police questions", then there would be no need to perform critical incident reviews either to better train officers how to deal with similar situations or to address problems in policies, tactics and training that may be uncovered through investigations.

Afterwards, about a half dozen people who attended the forum said that they were ready to stand up and ask Leach to elaborate on his response but besides Braden who repeated the question, none of them did. The answer to that question, is that it's probably both and it deserved a more thought out response than was provided at the forum.

Given that there were two officer-involved shootings investigations that were still ongoing and three that still were under investigation in a matter of speaking by the CPRC, some people also asked afterwards if Leach's words meant that the department had pretty much made its mind up on its own investigations already. Whether that is true or not has always been a subject of much debate in many other cities besides Riverside and Philadelphia and perhaps always will be.

Dying while Mentally Ill

The city of Philadelphia has also taken one step in the direction of addressing its high shooting rate by graduating its first crisis intervention team which consisted of 18 police officers trained over a four-day period. More information on Philadelphia's new program can be found here.

One of the fatal shootings this month involved a man wielding a knife who was shot by police officers after two attempts to tase him failed and he asked them to kill him. Charles Kelley was the seventh mentally ill person to be fatally shot by police officers since 2000. The official explanation?

Suicide by cop.

Community leaders were happy that the program had been implemented but said that it was a long time coming since it was first suggested after a fatal shooting involving a mentally ill man at an Amtrak station in 2000 as evidenced by this press release by the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania after that shooting.

(excerpt, Philadelphia Inquirer article)

"We spent years meeting with police, being stymied and stonewalled by [former Police Commissioner John Timoney] and everyone else," said Sister Mary Scullion of Project Home. "They did not want to deal with it."

"How many bodies later - now the first class is going to graduate."

Experts were divided on whether Kelley's shooting could have been prevented by a crisis intervention team program but said that other tragic situations and those interactions between mentally ill or incapacitated individuals and police officers that do not result in fatal shootings could also be prevented.

In the press release by M.H.A.S.P. from 2000, Joseph Rogers raises many excellent points about the importance of a strong working relationship between law enforcement agencies and mental health agencies and organizations.


"CIT officers, who volunteer and than are selected based on their judgment and maturity, attend an initial 40-hour training curriculum supervised by mental health providers, family advocates and mental health consumer groups at no expense to the city. The training enables officers to understand that mental illness is not a crime, but a disease. The officers also develop relevant skills, including how to de-escalate potentially volatile situations.

Although police departments without crisis response programs may also provide training related to mental illness issues, mere training is not enough, according to Lt. Cochran. He said that the cohesiveness developed by the team approach is vital to its success. The team members feel that they belong to an elite group, and their morale is correspondingly high."

Riverside is still in the process of deciding what form of mental health intervention program or training it is going to provide for its police officers. For the first time, city officials acknowledged that such training was needed in public at the meeting on Jan. 22. Asst. City Manager Tom DeSantis detailed the proposed training in his powerpoint which was based on a co-partner model involving the police department and the county's mental health agencies that was similar to what's being done in San Diego County and the Los Angeles Police Department's SMART program.

And what was presented contrasted greatly with what avenues the department had been exploring early last summer. In June, there were murmurs that the police department would be adopting a program similar to that being used in Philadelpia, Memphis and in other cities across the country, which is the crisis intervention team model. The momentum appeared to push that program forward to begin training last autumn through the Mental Health Association of Southwest Ohio which offers law enforcement training to officers in different agencies in Ohio and other states. However, at the same time the department underwent staffing changes was when that process appeared to stall.

At the public safety committee meeting, Leach admitted that the department had "stumbled" through the process of creating and implementing training. He said that their prior efforts had led them to decide they didn't want a "cookie cutter" program which appeared to have been a reference to the crisis intervention team model which is anything but. But it's the more formidable of the two models to consider, in that it often elicits a strawman argument response in its opponants along the lines that police officers are not "medical doctors" or "social workers".

It was disappointing to see Leach adopt a similar tactic at the public safety committee meeting especially coming after Councilman Steve Adams' diatribe against the mentally ill. From Adams, that kind of language is not surprising because a part of Adams is still very much in the past when he worked for the police department as an officer before the first crisis intervention team was even formed. Adams gives evidence that he stands rooted in that past whenever he refers to the police department in conversation as "we", which he did throughout that meeting.

However, law enforcement is not still in the 1980s nor should it be. Police departments would not allow their use of force training or their defense tactics to stagnate, and they shouldn't allow their other training to do like either.

In responding to the strawman argument raised above, one can say, no they are not doctors or social workers, but they are frontline responders in ways that are both similar and different to members of these other service occupations. Hopefully, as time progresses that defense mechanism which is heavily steeped in the police culture will dissolve and be replaced by more progressive insights into a profession that is in a constant state of evolution even while shrouded by a culture that appears to want to remain frozen in time.

What this model offers that the co-partner model doesn't is training for frontline law enforcement officers to be able to better assess situations involving people who may be mentally ill, medically ill or otherwise mentally incapacitated. Such training may have been very useful for dealing with situations similar to the fatal incidents of Terry Rabb in October 2005 and Lee Deante Brown in April 2006 or even an incident that occurred in Casa Blanca in December when a mentally ill man was struck in the face by a police officer who alleged that the man had charged him. One involved officer said at a community meeting during a discussion of the incidedent that he had no idea that the man was mentally ill and another officer said that if he had been mentally ill, then he should not be allowed to go outside by himself. Maybe that's the truth of how the mentally ill live in Riverside though not in the way this officer envisioned it.

Dan Bernstein, columnist from the Press Enterprise wrote a hilarious column about a very serious subject in Riverside County involving the seizure of Riverside County Superior Court civil judges who have been drafted to oversee criminal trials since last August. If these cases were not taken to trial inside civil courtrooms, then they would have to be dismissed, as happened on Jan. 26 when Judge Gary Tranbarger dismissed two misdemeanor cases due to lack of venues to hear them and the fact that the clock had run out on both of them.

Fingers are being pointed in all directions. Blame is being put on Sacramento in that there are the increase in judicial positions has not kept pace with the fast-growing county. Fingers are being pointed by the local bar association and also by some judges at District Attorney Rod Pacheco's no plea bargain rule.

Regardless, now it appears that there are no civil courts left to hear what amounts to 1,000 backed up felony cases and so Pacheco has set his sights on the family courts across the street from the Hall of Justice. And according to Bernstein, some other kinds of courts as well.

Courting trouble

Past articles:

Cases dismissed due to lack of courtrooms

Judge Gary Tranbarger's column on courtroom shortage

The impact is being felt in the jury pool as well which at the pace it's going will be lucky if it makes it to August. Earlier last month, over 864 jurors were summoned for one day, eight trials. As one such juror who stood in line for two hours until the judge's deputy went looking for about half of the jury panel which was missing in two separate lines which snaked all the way around the building.



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