“I believe that the collapse of the mental-health treatment system may be one of the greatest social failures in the United States in the 20th century,” said Santa Barbara County Undersheriff Bernard Melekian last Thursday at a talk hosted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Melekian cited studies that highlight the vulnerability of mental-health patients at the hands of law enforcement. The Washington Post recently reported that out of 990 people killed by police in 2015, approximately 25 percent showed signs of mental illnesses. In another study, the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team found that of the 65 people shot dead by law enforcement in Massachusetts between 2005 and 2015, 48 percent exhibited mental illness.
To Melekian, these studies point to a growing problem within the U.S. criminal justice system. “Law enforcement [officers] have become the de facto social workers for dealing with people in mental-health crisis, and the tools that we have all too often are a loud voice and a firearm,” he said.
In 2002, a 432-page, federally funded report by the Council of State Governments concluded that “[p]eople with mental illness are falling through the cracks of this country’s social safety net and are landing in the criminal justice system at an alarming rate.” It offered 46 policy ideas to improv e the situation. Melekian served on the report’s advisory board while he was Pasadena, California’s chief of police. “What I find depressing is that this was published in 2002 and many of these recommendations are still valid, still waiting to be acted upon,” he said.
American deinstitutionalization, or the closing of large, state-run psychiatric institutions in favor of community-based treatment centers, was in full swing when Melekian was a Santa Monica cop in the 1970s. He recalled the opening of the Euclid Mental Health Center. When officers came across people in the throes of a mental-health crisis, he said, the officers would take them to the center to be evaluated, instead of transporting them to jail.
“That shut down within two to three years,” Melekian said. “I assume it was defunded. I was a young police officer, and all I knew was that an incredibly important resource was suddenly gone.”
Santa Barbara County has its own woes. Its Psychiatric Health Facility (PHF) has only 16 beds, which forces many patients out of the area to receive treatment. Mental-health advocates and jail administrators have been locked in protracted debate over care and funding constraints. Last year, the proposed 228-bed Sheriff’s Transition and Reentry wing for the mentally ill that would have been part of the North County Jail was rejected by county supervisors.
“What we have is a facility that is absolutely archaic,” Melekian said of PHF. “I think that it is incredibly unfortunate that our psychiatric hospital facility is limited by law to 16 beds for a county of 470,000.” Deputies are well aware of the shortage, he continued, and so sometimes have no choice but to jail people in need to “save [the PHF beds] for the very worst.”
In terms of preparing law enforcement personnel for interactions with mental-health patients, Sheriff’s Lieutenant Eddie Hsueh said Thursday that he is in the process of rolling out a Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) program. So far, 250 department employees have gone through the program, with a remaining 350 expected to complete it by the end of November.
The training is based on the Memphis Model, developed in 1988 by the Memphis Police Department with the purpose of de-escalating emergency interactions and diverting patients from jail. In 2002, Melekian adopted the model in Pasadena, and patrol officers were paired with mental-health clinicians. In Santa Barbara, the program will be made possible by social workers volunteering their time to instruct deputies, as funding is not yet available for paid positions.
Ideally, Melekian said, the department would have two academies: one for basic job training and another to develop deputies’ communication skills to better handle critical situations.
Thursday’s talk came on the heels of the fatal shooting of a Santa Maria man by officers the previous Wednesday. At a busy intersection, Javier Gaona, 31, held a knife to his throat and shouted at police to kill him. Officers shot beanbag rounds to incapacitate him, but then opened fire with their guns when Gaona lunged. Santa Maria Police Chief Ralph Martin said Gaona had exhibited signs of mental illness.
Looking to the future, Melekian told The Santa Barbara Independent that the Sheriff’s Office is “absolutely committed to finding better ways to deal with mental-health issues” but that ultimately the real solution will not be found within law enforcement departments. “You heard the president say it the other night in Dallas: We as a society continue to challenge the police to solve these social problems that should be solved elsewhere.”