Push Comes to Shove Between Law Enforcement and Mental Health

County Supes Confront Too Many Needs with Not Enough Money

Santa Barbara Undersheriff Barney Melekian (center) at County budget talks on Friday
Paul Wellman

As usual, it was the tiniest of requests that generated the most intense heat. As the county supervisors contemplated the competing needs outlined in this year’s proposed billion-dollar-plus budget this Friday, they found themselves staring down the tear-filled eyeballs and trembling chins of two middle-aged mothers of mentally ill sons. They were asking the supervisors to set aside $130,000 to keep alive a pilot program designed to train law enforcement officers on how to de-escalate confrontations with mentally ill subjects.

Santa Ynez Valley resident Toni Fox fought to maintain her composure as she described an unhappy encounter the night of April 5 between three Sheriff’s deputies and her 33 year-old son, Brent Fox, then suffering a serious psychotic episode. Fox’s husband, Dan, had called 9-1-1 for help, fully expecting mental health workers with the county’s CARES (Crisis and Recovery Emergency Services) unit to show up as they had on three previous occasions. Instead three sheriff’s deputies arrived, entered the house, and began moving toward their son. By then, he was standing on top of a table and wielding — at least briefly — an umbrella. (Another son, she said, took it away.) He asked the deputies whether they were there to kill him. He proclaimed that he was an American. He challenged them to a fight.

Supervisor Steve Lavagnino (on screen) and Sheriff Bill Brown at County budget talks on Friday
Paul Wellman

At least one of the deputies, according to Fox, took the bait. “Okay, I’ll fight you,” he reportedly said. With that, Brent Fox leapt at the deputies and the fight was on. Two of the deputies received blows. Brent Fox was tased four times, rolled on his stomach, cuffed, and placed in a patrol car. There he violently banged his head against the car. His wrists, his mother said, were bleeding. Since that night, Toni Fox said, her son — who’d been hospitalized three times in recent years because of acute psychiatric problems, has been held in custody in County Jail. The Fox family has private insurance that would cover the costs of another hospitalization, Fox said. Instead, he was now “rotting” in jail. “Mentally ill people do not ask to be sick,” she testified. “They are not criminals. My son is being treated as if he were.”

Fox lamented that none of the officers who showed up in response to her family’s call for help had received proper training in dealing with the mentally ill. In the family’s past experiences, she said, responding officers knew how not to make a bad situation worse. Fox was there to lobby the supervisors to set aside $130,000 to hire someone to run the department’s struggling Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) program. That program has been in business for about a year. To the extent it’s been funded at all, it’s been with unspent monies from other grant programs. Currently, the program coordinator, Dr. Cherylynn Lee, is funded only six hours a week. Mental health advocates with groups like Families Act and NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), have expressed alarm that without real funding, the program will soon fizzle out. They showed up in force on Friday to make their case.

Editor’s Note: The Independent has since learned that the deputies who responded to the Fox call had received eight hours of CIT training, but none had undergone the 40-hour training.

Joining them was Nina Boelsterli, whose son, she said, was arrested late last January and has been in County Jail ever since. “It’s a complicated story,” she said after. At the time, she said, her son hadn’t slept in three days. He has PTSD, she said, and has a bi-polar condition. “He was disheveled,” she said. “He looked a little off.” Two deputies stopped him. “They went up to him and grabbed him,” she said. “That’s not a good thing to do.” Had the deputies been trained in how to deal with the mentally ill, she said, they would have known that. As a result, her son is facing two felony counts for obstruction of justice, she said, plus jaywalking. “From a desperate mom,” she implored the supervisors. “Help and fund the CIT program.”

Santa Barbara County Budget Director Jeff Frapwell
Paul Wellman

Fox and Boelsterli clearly succeeded in getting the supervisors’ attention; they succeeded in getting their sympathy, too. “Stick with the fight,” said Supervisor Steve Lavagnino of Santa Maria. “You’re doing the right thing.” It remains to be seen, however, whether they succeeded in loosening the purse strings that the supervisors control.

The best thing that can be said of budget choices confronting the supervisors this year is that they could be worse. This winter’s fire and flood disasters kicked a $10 million hole in the budget and unless county voters approve a cannabis tax on this June’s ballot — which could raise anywhere from $5 million to $25 million — the supervisors will find themselves caught between a rock and very hard place.

As county supervisor — and board chair — Das Williams has stated repeatedly, county department heads are collectively asking the supervisors to “restore” $27 million more to the budget than they can reasonably expect to have on hand. Unless all 11 of the county’s unions agree to make major concessions on their pensions plans, he warned, and the cannabis tax passes, the supervisors will be dishing out a lot of pain come June when the budget is slated for final adoption. The three days of hearings that took place this past week qualify as a dress rehearsal.

Sheriff Bill Brown readily agrees that the mental health challenges confronting his department are enormous; he acknowledged that the CIT training program has proven valuable. Ventura County, he noted, had a similar program that’s strived to provide every sworn officer in the county with 40 hours of training. “Like everything else, there are dollar signs attached to it,” he said. “We can only be creative so far.” It should be noted that the lieutenant leading the charge on behalf of CIT training within the department, Lt. Eddie Hsueh, is running against Brown for County Sheriff-Coroner in this June’s election. Hsueh has been endorsed by the Democratic Party. Also running against Brown is Lt. Brian Olmstead, who has been backed by the Deputy Sheriffs’ Association and by Republicans disaffected with Brown.

Santa Barbara County Supervisors Joan Hartmann and Das Williams
Paul Wellman

Brown and his department have struggled for years with crushing overtime costs — $7 million a year — due in large part to equally chronic recruiting and retention issues. With about 50 unfilled positions, overtime becomes a necessity. Every year, the department estimates, it will spend $2 million in overtime. Every year, it winds up spending $4 million more than that. Of all the departments, the Sheriff’s has the biggest budget — $135 million — and of all the departments, it also has the biggest projected shortfall — $2.3 million. Sheriff Brown and Undersheriff Bernard Melekian have proposed cutting three positions from the Isla Vista Foot Patrol, much to the consternation of UCSB, Associated Students, the Isla Vista Community Services District, and supervisors Joan Hartman and Das Williams.

Also howling is the county courts czar Darrel Parker, who on Friday indelicately demanded to know just how the Sheriff’s Office spent the $7.4 million it received from the State of California to provide security for the judges. Parker complained he’d asked for that information repeatedly and is still waiting a good answer. Parker got no sympathy from Supervisor Williams, who opined the safety needs of “19-year-old women going to college” — referring to Isla Vista and UCSB — clearly trumped those of the judges.

Superior Court Executive Officer Darrel Parker at County budget talks Friday
Paul Wellman

For years, Brown’s ace in the hole has been Undersheriff Melekian, who enjoys a degree of trust and rapport with the supervisors that has somehow eluded the sheriff. Melekian unveiled a plan he recently crafted to address the department’s massive overtime spending by hiring 14 new deputies over the next three years. Up front, this would cost about $5 million, Melekian stated, but it would save department much more in overtime.

He cited the department’s recent experience throwing eight additional deputies at the unincorporated area around Santa Maria’s jail. Not only did overtime costs plummet dramatically, but so did sick time and time-off because of injuries sustained by deputies. If that same trend, holds true, Melekian suggested, the department can plug a chronic budget shortfall and save at least enough money to put the training program for deputies dealing with the mentally ill on solid financial footing.

The trick, of course, is recruiting enough new deputies to compensate for those leaving the department either because of retirement or to take jobs elsewhere. Melekian said the proposal is to focus concentrated resources on job fairs and recruiting efforts, highlighting those areas of Santa Barbara County where housing prices are not quite so astronomical. Sheriff Brown put the supervisors on notice they’d have to bite the bullet sooner or later and address the pay-and-benefit gap between Santa Barbara’s sworn officers and those of surrounding communities.

The ball is now in the supervisors’ court. With Type I crime rates down by 5 percent — (property crime is down by 7 percent, violent crime is up by 6) and felony filings down by 15 percent, it’s anybody’s guess how deep into their pockets they’ll be willing to dig.


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