Kelly Thomas Tragedy Shows: OC needs the “Memphis Model” for dealing with the mentally ill.


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In the aftermath of the media scrutiny surrounding the verdict in the Kelly Thomas case the media and bloggers missed an opportunity to ask the question of not just how could this have been prevented, but what kind of police department should we have?  John Barnett, the attorney for accused policeman Manuel Ramos, clearly won the argument, as the jury believed him when he stated both during closing statements and to the press “These peace officers were doing their jobs…they did what they were trained to do.”

This article will not be about police accountability and even if the Peace Officer’s Bill of Rights (POBR) had been reformed prior to this incident it would not have prevented Kelly’s death.  But it is this statement by Barnett that is illuminating, as it was the use-of-force training, as well as the stigmas that surround mental illness, that contributed to his death. Thus I would argue that it’s time to revise the training that led not only to Kelly’s death, but to other deaths across the country when cops and the mentally ill collide.  Mike Riggs in this article  concludes that American’s should “Think Twice Before Asking The Police to Deal with the Mentally Ill.”

Yet I know that the law enforcement profession, given the right tools and the right training, can be an agent of good that those most at risk can turn to for help. Implementing and designing these best practices is not a failure of resources but simply of politics.

Like all law enforcement agencies, Fullerton PD is governed and accredited through the California Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST). It is POST that has both the legislative mandate and the funding to design and implement training based on best practices for all of California, but it has not done so in a consistent fashion. Currently POST standards require continuing education, but does not designate the number of hours, the frequency or even necessitate that training be documented relative to street level encounters with the mentally ill.

As a result of Kelly’s death the Orange County Grand Jury issued a report last year titled: “A Look at Tools to Assist Law Enforcement in Achieving Positive Outcomes with the Homeless Mentally Ill.” The report asked a series of questions and mandated responses from all law enforcement agencies to a series of findings and their application to individual communities. What the Grand Jury noted was that training after the Academy was woefully inadequate, although many agencies disagreed with that statement.

“Each city agency and the Sheriff’s Department should supplement POST training to include an in-depth study of dealing with those on the street who are emotionally disturbed and/or mentally ill – both in the context of day to day policing and in the context of use of force. Although many agencies have procedures for dealing with the mentally ill, few actually conduct regular training related to these policies. Even less train on tactics and use of force in the context of the emotionally disturbed and the mentally ill.”

Many community members, elected officials and mental health advocates have long contended that if Laura’s Law had been implemented in this County, it would have prevented Kelly’s death.  Yet I wonder if they realize that Kelly did not meet many of criteria in order to qualify for treatment under that law, which includes that in addition to his severe mental illness, that he must have been hospitalized or jailed twice in 36 months for his mental illness, or have been violent at least once in the last 2 years.

In my career I saw the pendulum swing wildly as our elected officials and our law enforcement leaders used tragedies which I can only call the “crime de jour” to propose policy and law without critically analyzing the effect on our communities. Some laws were necessary, such as domestic violence laws, but others such as three-strikes have created an over-burdened criminal justice system that we are still attempting to fix today.  My fear is that Laura’s Law when implemented on the street without adequate training for law enforcement could possibly increase the likelihood of a use-of-force incident, as no one is asking who will be responsible for getting the mentally ill into the system.  This task will fall to law enforcement as the police are the gate keepers to both the mental health system and the criminal justice system. 

But there ARE successful law enforcement models that use a crisis intervention training (CIT) approach to resolve many of the public safety issues surrounding the mentally ill and homeless. The most noteworthy agency is the Memphis, Tennessee Police Department that implemented the “Memphis Model” based on:

  1. Specially trained officers to respond immediately to crisis calls;
  2. Ongoing training of CIT officers at no expense to the City (of Memphis) ;
  3. Establishments of partnerships of police, National Alliance on Mental Illness/Memphis, mental health providers, and mental health consumers.

The Memphis Model has been in existence since 1988 and was born on the heels of an officer-involved shooting and death of a mentally ill individual.  This incident forced Memphis PD to re-think how they interact with the mentally ill. But the difference is that they recognized that the police must adjust beyond “traditional police responses to a more humane treatment of individuals with mental illness.” It was this cultural shift that emphasizes service and not stigma that has won awards, as well as the hearts and minds of the mental health community, the mentally ill and their families.

But it wasn’t just the cultural shift but the results of the program that warranted the kudos.  Memphis PD’s implementation of the program resulted in overall officer injury data showing a decrease by seven-fold since the program’s inception, while University of Tennessee studies have reflected that the CIT program has resulted in a “decrease in arrests rates for the mentally ill, an impressive rate of diversion into the health care system, and a resulting low rate of mental illness in our jails.” So why are the Orange County Supervisors not demanding that this type of training also be included when discussing the costs associated with the implementation of Laura’s Law?

Laura’s Law frankly is not a primary response to the many issues that surround initial police contacts on the streets. It is just another tool in the continuum of treatment that will be available for the severely mentally ill that are a danger to themselves or others. But the advocacy of Laura’s Law as something that would have prevented Kelly Thomas’s death has no basis. What could have saved his life would have been a county-wide adoption of a successful law enforcement program that has saved lives and enhanced public safety prior to his death.

One of the many hurdles in law enforcement is that we are reactive and not pro-active to events and incidents that result from bad policy, bad tactics and a culture that allows us to stigmatize the disenfranchised.  It will then come as no surprise that on page 15 of the Grand Jury Report they note that the OC Health Care Agency has both funds and a comprehensive forty-hour crisis intervention training (CIT) course which was available prior to Kelly Thomas’s death.  The push-back from some agencies was that the departments rejected this proposal as too difficult to implement “due to the projected cost of overtime necessary to backfill the work schedule for patrol officers attending the weeklong training.”

It is this penny-wise, pound-foolish response that always makes me cringe. I’m guessing that the one-million dollar settlement recently awarded to Kelly’s mother would have paid for the successful training of every police officer in Fullerton and then some. Clearly the Supervisors will be using proceeds from California’s scandal-ridden Prop 63 Mental Health Services Act also known as the “millionaire’s tax” to fund the implementation of Laura’s law in the County. Why can’t we use the same funds for this training as well?

Since 2004 over 10 billion has been raised and wasted on things such as bullying courses, yoga, horseback riding, and other innovation programs as well as administrative overhead. Orange County itself has received over 700 million since the start of the program. Given that the County wanted to spend 2.2 million on an interactive exhibit to educate visitors on mental illness this year, it’s no wonder the vitally necessary Centralized Assessment Team (CAT) and the Psychiatric Evaluation and Response Team (PERT) that includes law enforcement are woefully under-funded at 4 million.

My hope, despite my lack of faith in bureaucracies, is that as the County begins the roll-out of Laura’s Law, that it recognizes that diverting spending from MHSA innovation programs to implementing mandatory CIT training for every police officer is more in line with the intent of the law, which was  to provide funding for the most severely mentally ill.  Through county-wide CIT training in addition to enhancing both the CAT and PERT programs will help to shift the paradigm of law enforcement to one of service for those most at risk.  With this shift, in addition to having a tool such as Laura’s Law (without forced medication, which offends our libertarian instincts), our communities may be able to achieve the many positive public health outcomes that other law enforcement agencies across the nation have achieved.


About Diane Goldstein

Diane Goldstein is a 21-year veteran of law enforcement who retired as the first female lieutenant for the Redondo Beach Police Department, (CA). She is a speaker and Executive Board Member for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), serving as Chief of Staff for Dale Sky Jones , and the Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform. She is a guest columnist for the Huffington Post, The Leaf Online, High Times, The Orange Juice Blog, Medical Marijuana 411 and Ladybud Magazine, as well as appearing on television and on radio as a political commentator.