First responders often get a bad rap about their dealings with the mentally ill, but I saw police and firefighters work magic on the beach

By Larry Layne

The writer is a resident of Marina del Rey.

On Friday, April 7, I was lucky to observe firsthand the outstanding performance of our firefighters with Los Angeles Fire Station 63 in Venice and beach patrol officers with LAPD Pacific Division Beach Patrol in dealing with a mentally unstable man.

At around 3 p.m. on the beach by Marina del Rey, I noticed a middle-aged man in a white T-shirt, jeans and tennis shoes. He was carrying a canvas briefcase as well as a paper bag and behaving very strangely.

About two hours later he wandered up Ocean Front Walk near the south end of the peninsula and decided to lie down on the walk path asphalt. Suddenly he started screaming, got very mad and was flailing his arms and legs. Then he began throwing handfuls of sand. I called 911 and explained the situation, and Station 63 dispatched three firemen who arrived within 15 minutes of my call.

I watched the firefighters try to work with this disturbed man. First the team approached him gently, assuring him they were there to help and that they were paramedics. He got up from the pavement and started to walk away. Again, they assured him they were there to help him and were not the police, and encouraged him to come back and sit down where he had left his shoes and briefcase.

Despite their reassurances, the man kept screaming and waving his arms and kicking his legs. Then he walked back out onto the beach. Clearly not getting anywhere, the firefighters called for LAPD backup.

About 15 minutes later, two bike patrol officers and one four-wheel pickup patrol unit arrived. They assessed the situation with the firefighters while the man continued to wander deeper out onto the sand.

One of the bike officers got into the vehicle and drove out slowly. When they met up with the man, they again spoke to him for a time from the vehicle, then got out and gently approached him. They talked to him for maybe 30 minutes, sometimes sitting down on the sand with him or asking him to stand up and talk to them. I kept thinking they were going to handcuff him, but after talking to him for quite a long time, they got back in their vehicle and came back to drop off the one officer at his bike.

I asked that officer about what happened, and he said the man had been arrested twice before for similar behavior. And, that after talking with him for a time, he told officers he was living with his sister in Venice and was sorry for his behavior, stating that he didn’t want to hurt anyone. As the man calmed down, the officers declined any further action. They explained to me that arresting him would have only brought him into temporary LAPD custody until an L.A. County Health Department unit could do yet another assessment and release him once again.

While it does fall on our first responders to assist those grappling with serious mental illness, it’s not the main focus of their job. But I was pleased to see how both the LAFD and LAPD dealt so gently and compassionately with this disturbed individual.

The situation does make me wonder, however, why we as a community are so unwilling to commit more resources toward helping the mentally ill.