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.

Garden Grove police officer Rudy Negron is part of a mental-health team
Marisa Gerber
Garden Grove police officer Rudy Negron is part of a mental-health team

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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