Police officers should get more training on how to deal with the mentally ill

By Bettina Gantsweg

The slight man shuffles along in front of a laundromat on Washington Boulevard, stops and sets down an orange drink in the middle of the doorway. Wearing knee-length black pants, black shirt and a tan cap, he seems normal until he starts pacing in circles, shouts into the air and flings around his dirt-covered arms — obviously he’s mentally ill. But eventually he picks up his orange drink and just walks out.

A moment later, when two huge police officers walk past the laundromat, I go outside to observe. They approach the man, corner him against a wall and stand stiffly, feet apart, hands on hips, expressionless. The little man’s face freezes in terror.

While speaking to him, the roughly 6’6” officer takes the man’s arms, twists them behind him and seems ready to handcuff. Instead, he pats the man down, empties his pockets, removes his hat — does his job.

Maybe they’re looking for drugs or incriminating evidence, I think. After 10 minutes, the officers turn and leave and the man with the orange drink continues on his way.

As the officers walk towards the laundromat, I approach one and say, “Can I ask you a question?”

“Yes,” he says, face wooden.

“I was curious how much training you receive dealing with mental illness.”

“We get one day,” the officer says.

“One day? Do you feel that that’s adequate?”

“No, not really, but there’s an officer who rides with a psychologist — he’s available in case of a mental health crisis.”

“May I also ask why you stopped that man?”

“Someone called in to say that he was inside a store talking crazy and disturbing the customers — he wouldn’t leave.”

“But you felt you could deal with him with one day of training?”

“We manage.” He ducks his head and says, “Sorry, I have to get going.”

I stand there shocked, imagining the mentally ill man’s feelings of panic, humiliation and confusion from that public examination. I’m also horrified that the officers are afforded so little training about how to deal with situations like this one, which could have escalated dangerously if the man had become irrational.

I go online to check the officer’s revelation that he’s had one day of training to deal with mentally ill persons and find the site DisabilityRightsCA.org. It includes a report titled “An Ounce of Prevention: Law Enforcement Training and Mental Health Crisis Intervention.”

It states: “Frequently, police officers respond to mental health-related calls and incidents, many of which can be time-consuming. At least one jurisdiction reported to Disability Rights California that mental health calls constitute up to one third of all calls for service that they receive.”

Part of the curriculum for police training is “Learning Domain 37: These six hours of instruction (less than 10% of academy training hours) cover a wide spectrum of disability-related topics.”

Six hours!

Aside from this, “there is no requirement in California law … that officers receive any additional or periodic refresher training interacting with individuals with a mental health disability.”

The reason for the lack of training is monetary: “There are no funds to pay for more in-depth training for all officers.”

Psychologists and psychiatrists require years of education to treat mentally ill clients, and here we have police officers with six hours of instruction dealing with disturbed individuals in possible crisis situations involving weapons, combative behavior or even suicide.

With so many police calls involving mental health issues, the present amount of training seems insanely inadequate, with many mentally ill persons confronted by police ending up in jail, and some worse — dead.

What can we do?

We can call the offices of our local representatives about this dire situation. Call Assemblywoman Autumn Burke’s office at (310) 412-6400, state Sen. Ben Allen’s at (310) 318-6994 and L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin’s at (310) 568-8772.

Or, write a letter to the editor (letters@argonautnews.com) that everyone can read.

Police departments need funding solutions to increase officers’ mental health training. Their safety, our safety and the safety of the mentally ill is at stake.

Bettina Gantsweg is a longtime resident of Marina del Rey.