Crime & Justice

CHP beating renews focus on officers' mental health training

CHP Commissioner Joe Farrow last year ordered more training on how to approach mentally ill people.
CHP Commissioner Joe Farrow last year ordered more training on how to approach mentally ill people.
Frank Stoltze/KPCC

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When CHP Lt. Daniel Lamm saw images of one of his colleagues atop Marlene Pinnock, repeatedly punching the barefoot woman who'd run into traffic on the 10 Freeway, the veteran cop had one reaction.

"It just really confirmed the need for the training,” Lamm said.

It turns out the videotaped incident in West Los Angeles came on the heels of a new effort by the department to provide extra training on how to respond to people who may be mentally ill. And while the family is declining to comment on whether Pinnock suffers from mental illness, the incident has put the spotlight back on officer training.

Until this past year, the CHP’s 7,400 officers received six hours of instruction as rookies at the training academy – the minimum required by the state's Commission on Police Officer Standards and Training, or POST. The LA Sheriff's Department, for example, requires 18 hours – six in the academy and 12 more when rookies go to the jails.

Lamm helped design eight hours of extra training on dealing with mentally ill people for CHP officers.  "It may have been…ten or 15 years ago” since they received training on mental health issues, he said. “Things have advanced. Curriculum at the academy has changed."

He did not know whether the officer involved in the Pinnock incident underwent additional training, which included instruction on how to communicate with mentally ill people and appropriate actions when they don't respond.

CHP Commissioner Joe Farrow ordered the training after a series of high profile incidents around the state, including the beating of Kelly Thomas by Fullerton police officers. 

“That certainly had our attention,” said Farrow. “I think this is one of the most important compounding issues facing law enforcement today.”

An attorney for Pinnock’s family declined to say whether she was mentally ill, but said “she’s had emotional trauma in her life.” Pinnock was locked in a psychiatric facility as of Tuesday, attorney Caree Harper said.

Harper said whether or not her client is mentally ill, the still unnamed officer involved doesn't belong on the job. "There is a lesser means of force to use on a grandmother," she said, noting Pinnock was unarmed. 

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Some agencies, including the LAPD, have specialized crisis teams that can respond to situations involving mentally ill people. The CHP does not.

Lamm noted some CHP officers undergo more training than the minimum, including those who work the Golden Gate Bridge where suicide attempts are common. He could not say how many receive or decide to enroll in more training.

POST offers at least 16 courses on issues related to handling people with mental illnesses, according to spokeswoman Alexi Blaylock. One addresses how to deal with homeless people with mental illnesses. Another looks at dealing with people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“We offer an extensive buffet of training,” said Blaylock, a former San Diego police sergeant who once led a crisis intervention team. She said requiring six hours of training for all new police officers is appropriate.

“It’s to give you the minimum you need to get you started,” she said. “Training continues throughout your law enforcement career.” At the same time, Blaylock could not provide statistics on how many police officers in California end up receiving more training.

CHP Commission Farrow acknowledged the need for more instruction. “This is just the start,” he said of the past year’s extra training.

Lamm said videotape of a CHP officer on top of Pinnock hitting her likely will be a motivating factor.

“Its definitely going to keep the issue on the front burner,” he said.