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Some crimes related to mental illness

POSTED February 15, 2012 7:29 a.m.
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According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, at least 16 percent of people incarcerated have a serious mental illness. This means that tens of thousands of prisoners currently incarcerated have mental illness problems ranging from mild to severe. Forty percent of individuals with serious mental illnesses have been in jail or prison at some point in their lives. The mental illnesses most commonly seen in our prison institutions include psychotic disorders, major depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. A large number of prisoners are being treated with psychotropic drugs, which themselves have any number of adverse side effects that can affect their ability to function normally within society.

The problems of mentally ill persons in California being mishandled by the "system" started in the 1960s when state legislators passed well-intentioned bills that, contrary to expectations, substantially undermined the mental health treatment system. The theory was that they could be better served by being returned to the community for their required care and support. It became very difficult, at that point, to be committed to a mental health institution, and very easy to be released. And for those released but still in need of therapy and treatment, they, of course have the right to refuse treatment and do so more often than not. The police know all too well that a person showing serious mental problems will be released from a "5150 W&I" hold often within hours after being taken into custody.

The result of all of this has been that many people who need intensive mental health care end up homeless on the streets or are convicted of crimes and placed in the state prison system. This issue is much too big to solve at this time with the state's current budget problems - and even when lawmakers were operating in an environment flush with money, little was done to increase funding or to otherwise make changes with how the mentally ill are attended to. There is little hope that the funding issues or treatment policies will change anytime soon.

Now with the state's prisoner early-release program fully underway, local communities like ours are seeing not only the crime impacts, but significant consequences of having more unattended mentally ill persons in the population. For example, here in Ceres, the police department has seen an increase of calls for service relating to patients suffering from mental illness: 178 calls for service were made in 2010, and 271 similar calls were handled in 2011, representing a 35 percent increase. January of this year alone saw 17 calls for service featuring mentally ill subjects that were handled by police officers.

February is already proving to be a busy month with incidents involving mentally ill persons. On Feb. 1, 2012, a Ceres Police Officer responded to a call from a man requesting to go to Doctors Behavioral Health Center (DBHC) but did not want to be killed. Once on scene, it was learned that man was talking to himself and said that he heard voices that told him to do things. The man said he did not want to hurt himself or anyone else. His mother reported that he had a history of methamphetamine use, and was under the care of a psychiatrist. At that point, he did not meet the 5150 W&I criteria to be taken to DBHC. As the officer was preparing to leave, the man said that voices were telling him that if he doesn't kiss the officer, the voices are going to kill him. He then ran toward the officer and tried to kiss her. When he was pushed away, he became angry and attacked the officer, choking and punching the officer in the face, and then turning to attack his mother. The officer gained control of the subject and he was taken into custody for psychological evaluation.

On the morning of Feb. 3, a 57-year-old Ceres man was stabbed by a man suffering from mental illness resulting from a drug binge. The suspect buried a steak knife into the victim's back and was later found behind the vacant Raley's store in possession of a matching steak knife. The victim is alive but in critical condition, with the motive behind this senseless attack still under investigation.

Later that same day, while Don Pedro Elementary School was adjourning for the day, a 36-year-old female jumped out of a moving vehicle on Don Pedro. A female school administrator ran to her aid, but was attacked by the person who fell from the car. When a male school staff member attempted to free the administrator from the woman, he too was attacked by her. The woman then retrieved a soiled sanitary napkin from her person; she rubbed it on her face, placed it in her mouth and then threw it at the male school staff member. She then ran away from the school, but was shortly apprehended by the police. According to the officers, the woman was talking about demons setting her car and house on fire and was spitting on emergency responders. The aforementioned facts are shocking, but more so, they reveal the need for an improved system to address the needs of mentally ill persons.

The point of this column is not to assert "cause and effect," where I attempt to demonstrate a direct relationship with prisoner release policies and the number of events the police handle where mentally ill persons are involved; rather, it is to raise public awareness of what is [statistically] going on in our communities during these times. In addition to being aware of these issues, the public should understand that the scope of police work is gradually expanding to include more sophisticated responses to incidents involving mental health issues, in addition to the more traditional aspects of law enforcement and crime prevention.

These situations often prove to be dangerous for everyone involved. In most cases, mentally ill patients are cooperative, but their actions may change in a split second forcing the officer to react for the protection of themselves and others. These types of dangerous encounters contribute to the potential of the officers or citizens suffering injuries during apprehension. For example, during a recent event feature a man suffering from mental illness literally did a push-up off the ground with four police officers on his back. People affected by mental illness or drugs sometimes exhibit extraordinary strength and insensitivity to pain.

There is no clear cut solution to this complicated problem. There are portions of the state budget that fund nice-to-have programs, but when it comes to such matters as crime and care for the mentally ill, they should always be foremost and top priorities of state government. The police will keep track of the trends and let the lawmakers know the consequences of their funding policies. Meanwhile, police officers are dealing with these types of issues based on their own professional experience and training. They are empathetic to people with mental health problems and they are using existing programs to the fullest extent to protect the safety and welfare of both the general public and persons needing mental health care.
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