Disability Rights California works to improve law enforcements’ response to people in mental health crisis


Disability Rights California works to improve law enforcements’ response to people in mental health crisis

Photo of mounted police.

Disability Rights California diligently works to ensure equal protection for people with disabilities. Many times, DRC has to investigate incidents involving police officers who encounter people who have mental health disabilities. Law enforcement officers are overwhelmingly the first responders to incidents involving persons with mental health disabilities who are in crisis. Despite the frequent interaction between law enforcement and individuals experiencing a mental health crisis, there are minimal training mandates to address these situations. DRC’s investigations of these interactions has improved law enforcement and mental health agencies crisis response.

1990: Daniel Irvin

In 1990, DRC, then known as Protection and Advocacy, Inc. investigated the shooting death of Daniel Irvin by Redding police.

On the morning of his death, Irvin spoke with Redding police officers over concerns for his wife and children. He believed someone was holding them against their will.

Several officers described him as nervous, agitated and excited. However, they failed to recognize he needed a psychiatric evaluation.

Later that day, an officer saw Irvin walking down the street with a sword in each of his hands and called for more officers to respond.

As more officers arrived on the scene, Irvin panicked and became angry. Eventually, police tased him. A squad car hit him before an officer fired two rounds, killing him.

DRC concluded that the officers’ failed to recognize Irvin’s deteriorating mental health condition and recommended that the Redding Police Department provide additional training in crisis intervention and de-escalating situations with people with mental health disabilities.

1998: Charles Vaughn, Sr. and Marvin Nobel

DRC’s work continued in 1998 with the investigation of the shooting deaths of Charles Vaughn, Sr. and Marvin Nobel — two men with mental health disabilities. Police officers shot and killed both men in 1998 while separately trying to take them in for psychiatric evaluations. In both cases, police responded to requests from mental health staff who described Vaughn and Nobel as dangerous.

Officers had not received any training on interacting with people with mental health disabilities besides what was required at the police academy.

DRC called for law enforcement to develop a Crisis Intervention Team Academy, which would provide innovative, vigorous training on how to respond to people with psychiatric disabilities who are undergoing a crisis. As a result, these law enforcement agencies developed extensive training for officers.

DRC also recommended that county mental health and local law enforcement work closely in crises situations and to proactively develop policies and protocols regarding a collaborative response to crises.

Charles Vaughn

Charles Vaughn lived independently in an apartment and received outpatient mental health services from Monterey County Mental Health since the mid-1980s. In the weeks leading up to his death, he had become more withdrawn and mental health staff grew concerned about Vaughn's well-being.

On the morning of May 19, 1998, two social workers from Monterey County Mental Health went to Vaughn’s apartment to try to take him in for psychiatric evaluations. When Vaughn told the social workers that he no longer required their services and did not want to continue with his medication, they called the police for assistance.

When Seaside Police officers arrived, Vaughn once again refused services. Officers and the social workers encouraged him to come out of his apartment. Instead, Vaughn climbed out of his back door and went up to the roof carrying a metal corkscrew.

One officer followed Vaughn onto the roof and sprayed him with pepper spray. When Vaughn quickly moved towards the officer, two other officers shot Vaughn four times, killing him.

DRC investigated the tragic shooting. Investigators concluded that mental health staff did not have enough information to support the claim that Vaughn needed detention or that he posed a threat requiring law enforcement to intervene.

Marvin Noble

DRC investigated the death of Marvin Noble, a 45-year-old man with a psychiatric disability shot by Ukiah Police.

Noble received mental health services through the Conditional Release Program (CONREP), an involuntary outpatient mental health program for people with psychiatric disabilities who enter the program through the criminal justice system. As a condition of his parole for a 1981 offense, Noble was required to take monthly injections of an anti-psychotic medication and keep all of his appointments

His outpatient treatment had recently been transferred from his long-time therapist, with whom he had a therapeutic relationship of trust and rapport, to a new therapist who had only been with the program for six weeks. 

In the days leading up to his death, Noble missed one group therapy appointment and was two days late for his injection. When contacted by staff from CONREP, Noble refused to comply with his treatment plan

His new therapist decided Noble should be involuntary hospitalized and called Ukiah Police Department to bring him in

Three officers found Noble at the Foster Freeze drinking iced tea and waiting for his food order. The situation quickly escalated after officers asked Noble to step outside to speak with them. Noble stood and pulled out a fixed-blade knife, gestured with it to the officers, and said he was not going anywhere with them. Officers followed Noble as he walked out of the restaurant and made his way to his apartment. They used pepper spray on Noble but with no effect. They also tried to knock the knife out of Noble’s hand and eventually unleashed a police dog. Noble stabbed the dog as it approached him and an officer then fired a single shot, killing Noble.

DRC investigated the shooting. Investigators found no evidence to substantiate CONREP’s decision to bring Noble in for evaluation. The investigation found no evidence to suggest Noble was ever suicidal and a danger to himself. At the time of the incident, the Ukiah Police Department had no policies or procedures regarding how to interact with people who have psychiatric disabilities

2014: Crisis Intervention Training

In 2014, DRC released An Ounce of Prevention: Law Enforcement Training and Mental Health Crisis Intervention. This report examines the training California law enforcement receive in addressing mental health crisis calls.

DRC surveyed every law enforcement agency in California about whether they offer their officers Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) or any specialized, intensive mental health-training course. DRC also surveyed every POST affiliated law enforcement agency in the State of California regarding their current training in de-escalation and crisis intervention.

There are more than 400 law enforcement agencies and over 80,000 sworn, full - time peace officers. Of the nearly 200 law enforcement agencies responding to the survey, 75 percent report officers spend more time on mental health calls than other service calls. Just over one-half report offering a specialized CIT course. Recruits receive just six hours of training about disabilities at basic academy training.

To improve officer training and response to individuals in crisis and reduce stigma and bias, DRC recommended that the Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission (POST) take the lead in ensuring that officers receive specific training in responding to mental health crisis calls. DRC also advised the California Legislature to ensure that law enforcement officers receive adequate training in mental health crisis intervention.

2015:Senate Bill 29 Signed Into Law

Inspired by DRC’s report on mental health crisis intervention, Sen. Jim Beall introduced Senate Bills 11 and 29. SB 11 requires the California Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission (POST) to review their basic academy level training course on interacting with individual with disabilities. Under the bill, the commission developed an additional 15-hour training to better prepare law enforcement officers to recognize, de-escalate, and appropriately respond to persons with mental health disabilities, intellectual disabilities, or substance use disorders.

SB 29 requires field training officers (instructors for the field training program) to have at least eight hours of crisis intervention behavioral health training. The bill also requires POST, as part of its existing field training officer course, to provide at least four hours of training on how to interact with persons with mental health disabilities or intellectual disabilities.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bills in September 2015.

2016: Disability Rights California’s Expertise Used in POST Training programs

The California Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission (POST) invited DRC to serve as subject matter experts on several officer-training courses, including an expanded 8-hour course on interacting with individuals with mental health disabilities in crisis. The training will be required of all field-training officers who instruct and mentor recent police academy graduates. DRC worked with other statewide experts, mental health advocates, practitioners, and law enforcement officers, to identify key issues that field training officers need to address and master. DRC staff sat on an expert panel to develop a tool kit that includes best practices and a how-to guide for implementing successful Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) trainings and programs. DRC also provided assistance in POST courses on hate crimes and interviewing victims with disabilities. The training will be mandatory for all new law enforcement personnel statewide. An estimated 90,000 officers will view the video.