Are OC's Cops Minding the Community?

The death of Kelly Thomas has put a spotlight on how cops treat the mentally ill

Rudy Negron and Paul Hoang started roaming the streets of Garden Grove together in a patrol car a few months ago, and they've already formed a tight bond.

But only one of them is a cop. Officer Negron is a self-described "patrol dog" and 16-year-veteran of the Garden Grove Police Department assigned to the mental-health team. Hoang, whom Negron calls "his partner without a gun," is a mental-health clinician who works for the Orange County Health Care Agency (HCA). Watching Hoang interact with the mentally ill has taught him a lot, Negron says.

As the county seethes over the death of Kelly Thomas, a 37-year-old transient with schizophrenia who was beaten by Fullerton cops and later died, many wonder whether law-enforcement agencies are doing enough to train officers to work with the mentally ill.

The collaboration in Garden Grove seems to be working, and Negron thinks every department in the county would benefit greatly from the same ability to "cut through the red tape and get the person what they need," he says. Clinicians can get people into hospitals much more easily than cops can, he points out.

But the vast majority of departments don't get the benefit of one-on-one time with somebody like Hoang. In Orange County, only Garden Grove, Westminster, Orange and the South County Sheriff's Department, which patrols unincorporated areas, have these working partnerships with clinicians, says Annette Mugrditchian, division manager for HCA's adult mental-health services.

In some cases, Mugrditchian explains, HCA reached out to the agencies to form such partnerships, which is what happened in Garden Grove; in other cases, the departments asked HCA for a clinician. If more agencies make such requests, Mugrditchian says, "We would definitely sit down and meet with them."

All law-enforcement agencies have access to the Centralized Assessment Team (CAT), which is where Hoang works when he's not riding with Negron. Officers can call CAT to talk to a clinician, Mugrditchian says, or drop off people at one of the county's five clinics. These clinics close at night, but an emergency triage service in Santa Ana is always open, she notes.

Other agencies do what they can with their own resources. Sergeant Bob Dunn of the Anaheim Police Department says that, aside from the training officers got at the academy, they try to keep up-to-date with mental-health issues by sending out informational bulletins via email, though he acknowledges it is up to each individual officer to decide whether to read them. Recently, he says, the department has been sending officers to two-day classes on how to interact with the mentally ill. He adds that about 10 Anaheim officers have attended the classes so far.

Thirteen of the Fullerton Police Department's 145 sworn officers have taken the two-day training class at Golden West College, which is funded under the state's Mental Health Services Act. Asked about future plans to send more officers to training, Sergeant Andrew Goodrich, spokesman for the Fullerton Police Department, says, "We're looking into how we do things around here, including crisis intervention." Since the police department hasn't released the names of the officers involved in the Kelly Thomas beating, Goodrich said he couldn't comment on whether any of them took the training class.

Since the classes became available in October 2008, about 900 Orange County law-enforcement officials have taken the training, Mugrditchian says. But, since there's no cap on funding for the training, she says, that number could be much larger. "We haven't ever been at a point where we've had a waiting list or where we haven't been able to accommodate everybody," she says.

Anaheim PD's Dunn says the main reason why his agency has sent so few cops to the classes is they "can only send so many officers at a time" because the training time pulls officers out of the field. Still, the department values the classes and is working to get as many officers as possible into them in the future, he says.

Negron says he has made it his personal mission to help other officers become better educated on the issue of mental illness. He held an in-house training session at his department recently and shared insight from working with the clinicians. "Spread the wealth of the mental health," Negron says of all the things he's learned from the collaboration.

Negron and Hoang spend three days a week winding around the city's streets and doing welfare checks on the city's mentally ill population, or the 5150s, as Negron calls them, after the section of the California statute that allows police and medical personnel to involuntarily confine someone.

A couple of years ago, before he agreed to the collaboration, Negron says, he was hesitant to have a clinician follow him around. "I wasn't a huge fan of it," he says. "I was like, 'Someone in my car all the time, naw,' but within a few weeks, I was sold on it. I love it. These guys are a godsend."

After watching Hoang and his previous "partner" on 5150 calls, Negron picked up several skills. He says he's learned that ditching the authoritative tone when talking to someone with a mental illness makes all the difference. "I go from, 'Hey, sit down,' to 'Are you taking any medication?' and being a counselor."

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15 comments
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Victoria N. Sileo
Victoria N. Sileo

Congrats to Officer Rudy Negron for taking that step to support his department in evolving to having more compassion & awareness about those living with Mental Illness. An illness that will never go away and needs a whole community to be insightful if we are all to be safe in all communities.

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HughDiego
HughDiego

Hope these training program works. Otherwise it is a waste of taxpayer's funds

Joe
Joe

You should send Fullerton cops along with their cronies to mental institution for good. Sgt. Andrew Goodrich is a disgrace to Orang County and should be the first one to go.

opinion33
opinion33

I applaud Officer Negron!! Well done! Unfortunately, the Behavioral Health Dept (BHD) in this county diverts the care of the mentally ill onto law enforcement and the families to handle. They provide NO care for the sickest patients who are unable to VOLUNTEER for their programs. (and thats those who lack cognative insight they are ill-a symptom of mental illness) They skim off the easiest patients to take care of dumping the rest on law enforcement to handle. Proof is in the hospitalization rates for mentally ill in OC going massively down (their side of the fence) and the incarceration rates for the mentally ill going way up every year at the OC jail.The current administration has cut the budget for crisis interventional training, instead spending their muli-millions on a vast array of redundant voluntary programs. The CAT team mentioned is an impotent, unaccountable and ineffective response team to the mental health emergencies this county faces...and it's not true an officer can just take a patient to one of their clinics without an appointment or patient being on medi-cal. Again the BHD misrepresents their services without shame!

Brooke
Brooke

We need more Cops like Officer Negron! thank you for reporting! Good police work should be praised by the community.

Brooke
Brooke

Nice to hear some good news and poisitive changes going on :)

SavvyRead
SavvyRead

When former HB Chief of the PD was placed in charge ot The Police Training Academy is was a CLUE second to the performance of the OC District Attorney; after a melee over the Fourth of July that incited a serious riot and lots of damage, The Chief cited "The Twinkie Defense;" the police officers hadn't had enough to eat ... to know better than send a Water Truck down Main Street spraying celebrants while LINES OF BAT SWINGING COPS closed in from either end of the street.

Rocket J
Rocket J

Why not ditch the authoritative tone in most all situations, use only when absolutely necessary. Being an aggressive jerk (which using an authoritative tone when not needed really is) rarely makes a situation better. Most John Q Public's are not threats and deserve to be with treated with initial respect. The real bad guys (gangs) are not intimated by the tough guy act, in fact the macho posturing is part of their culture. (I agree with the late Hunter S.Thompson who wrote in Hells Angels, paraphrasing here, police and gang culture have more in common with each other than with the population at large)

Titus Aurelius
Titus Aurelius

I agree with your comments in principal. It would be great. But, could it be that the tough mean-guy approach when approaching people who have broke the law possibly (even speeders) could be a deterrant to people like me and you who may not want to be exposed to a chewing out by a law enforcement type. I.e., obey the law, and you won't get yelled at?

But, I still think you make a good point.

pmd
pmd

Sorry, I have to disagree. As far as I can tell, people that break "revenue enhancement" laws (casual speeding, rolling stops, last second red lights) do so assuming it is their charm that will earn them a reprieve. I know plenty of LEO's personally, and even I assume that if I were to be stopped, the cop would be a dick. That's the persona they strap along with vest. I partially agree with you, this is the culture that has been adopted, the real debate is whether or not it is effective. Fullerton is a spectacular failure, and raises the question in the public's mind if there isn't a better way.

Joe Blow
Joe Blow

Thank you Officer Negron & Mr. Hoang! Seems like they know how to handle things in Garden Grove. Unfortunately FPD has a culture that thrives on police brutality. This issue is so much bigger than Kelly Thomas. Hopefully the public will wake up & realize we pay these officers to ensure our safety, not brutalize the mentally ill, poor, & weak.

HaroldAMaio
HaroldAMaio

1.The death of Kelly Thomas has put a spotlight on how cops treat -- the -- mentally ill2. Watching Hoang interact with -- the -- mentally ill has taught him a lot, Negron says.

Why journalism references a "the" mentally ill is a larger concern. What lesson are you offering? Why are you offering it?

Harold A. Maio, retired Mental Health Editor

khmaio@earthlink.net

Titus Aurelius
Titus Aurelius

I hope this becomes a trend with other PDs in OC. As I've always believed, most LEO's are top notch good guys/gals working for the public safety. But, with programs like this, and video cams/voice recorders etc, it keeps the honest cops safe and possibly will catch those rogue bad ones plus bring more understanding between the dept and the citizenry.

Jeff63a
Jeff63a

It's great to see OC cops going the extra mile to help those with mental illnesses. Way to go Officer Negron!

 
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