After death of Fullerton's Kelly Thomas, new attention on police training

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Last summer's beating death of a schizophrenic man by Fullerton police has renewed attention on police training. At Golden West College in Huntington Beach, law enforcement officers learn how to interact with people who are mentally ill and how to keep those interactions from turning violent.

The crisis intervention training at Golden West is a 16-hour class. It's based on a program developed by Memphis police after officers there fatally shot a suicidal man who'd approached them with a knife.

"Law enforcement officers never intended to be street corner psychiatrists," says Carla Jacobs, a board member with the Treatment Advocacy Center - a national nonprofit focused on educating people about mental illness. "But a law enforcement officer is more likely to get called to a call involving mental illness than any sort of burglary."

It happened to La Habra detective Craig Hentcy. He was a La Habra street cop three years ago when a woman called for help with her schizophrenic son. When Hentcy got to the woman's house, her son just wanted to go to his room. This was before Hentcy had specialized training on how to deal with the mentally ill.

"For an officer, we're concerned with safety. It's an unsearched area and we don't want him to go there, we want him to stay here for the evaluation and we're trying to do the right thing," Hentcy says. "And that's what I learned in the class: he was out of his comfort zone and he wanted to get to his comfort zone and we weren't letting him and that's where we fouled up."

The son ended up in a fistfight with the officers. No one was seriously injured, but everyone ended up getting treated at the hospital. Soon after, Hentcy enrolled in the crisis intervention training program at Golden West College called, "Understanding the Mentally Ill on the Street."

"It was interesting going through the class," he says. "Afterwards, I kind of saw where we'd gone wrong. We did some things right, we did a lot of things right, but there were some things that were an alarm for this poor guy."

Hentcy says he learned that speaking slowly and keeping a friendly demeanor are essential to handling those in the deepest throes of mental disease. It's stuff few cops know before they hit the streets.

"In the academy, they do get an overview about the kind of people they might encounter on the street that have a mental illness. But it's an overview and it's real general and this is more specific," says Marcia Gordon, a former Seal Beach police officer who coordinates Golden West's crisis intervention training with the Orange County Sheriff's Department. Since it began four years ago, she says, the program's 1,200 graduates have included cops, animal control officers, park rangers and even tax collectors.

"It's relevant to everybody but it was designed for patrol officers," Gordon says. "So it's an intensified version of things that might help them on the street so they'll be safer and also to help them deal with the mentally ill person so it doesn't become a physical confrontation."

When it does, the outcome can be catastrophic, like last summer's incident in Fullerton. Kelly Thomas, a 37-year-old schizophrenic man, is dead. Two Fullerton police officers will soon be on trial for his death- one for involuntary manslaughter; the other for second-degree murder.

"We already realized long before Kelly Thomas there seemed to be an increased number of people that first responders were coming into contact with in the field that were suffering from minor to very severe degrees of mental illness," says Ronald Lowenberg, a former police chief and dean the criminal justice center at Golden West College.

But with some training, he says, those contacts can turn out better. Craig Hentcy, who's now a detective in La Habra, says shortly after his altercation with that mentally ill young man in 2009, he had a similar call with someone else who was mentally ill. But this time, he knew what to do.

"Ultimately what happened was I was able to convince him to take his medication and to call his doctor the next day," Hentcy says. "We didn't have to kick in the door. We didn't have to fight with him. Mom felt better and we all went on with our night."

Crisis intervention training is free to all Orange County law enforcement officers. But only the Orange County Sheriff and the Irvine Police Department require it.

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