Lisa Becker Has Patience for the Patients

The bipolar activist wants to cure OC's problem with the homeless who are mentally ill

Lisa Becker Has Patience for the Patients

"I've been treated rough by the police. Not Kelly Thomas rough, but rough enough."

The slender redhead surveys her audience, whose attention is rapt.

"Yes, I'm mentally ill," Lisa Becker says. "Joy is extreme joy. Pain is extreme pain. I have crazy, out-of-control feelings. I don't sleep much; I'm constantly thinking about the past. I have been dangerous and out of control. I suffer every day. I have nightmarish imaginings. There's a war going on in here." She taps her head.

Lisa Becker: "There's a war going on in here"
Riley Kern
Lisa Becker: "There's a war going on in here"
Becker's Project Q-Tip in action
Riley Kern
Becker's Project Q-Tip in action

At the back of the room, her father, Dale, wipes his face.

"But it's controllable," she continues. "It's not all a sad story."

She looks at the audience and decides to take the tension down a notch. "I like to start with a joke. So this cop pulls over a guy and says, 'Your eyes look bloodshot—have you been drinking?' The driver says, 'Your eyes look glazed. Have you been eating doughnuts?'"

The crowd groans but gets the joke; every member of the audience is a cop.

They are listening to Becker because it's part of the program at Crisis Intervention Training (CIT), which is held each month at the Orange County Sheriff's Department on Katella Avenue in Orange, a stone's throw from the Honda Center and Angel Stadium. Walking through the parking lot to the conference rooms, you pass an armored truck and bomb-demolition vehicle. The crack of firing on the pistol range rings out. In this unlikely setting, minds are being changed in how law-enforcement personnel see the mentally ill people they have contact with nearly every working day.

Becker doesn't look mentally ill. She's well-put-together in a smart pantsuit, her hair a moderate but flattering length. But the story she tells will be familiar to anyone with a working knowledge of mental illness, 5150s (police jargon for involuntary institutionalization), drug and alcohol dependency, county jail, and the streets of Orange County.

"I've been violent, screaming at cars and people, breaking bottles," Becker says. She used to wander into parks to rob homeless people and once was nearly beaten up by a large, female transient who didn't appreciate being targeted. "I lived in my car and walked the streets all night," she adds. "I stole an American flag and drove around town with it. I'd get my car out of impound, then abandon it. It finally got donated to the city of Costa Mesa when they towed it away. I've never been Tased, but I've been thrown on the sidewalk and slammed against the hood of a cop car."

Yet this same woman is now helping Orange County law enforcement—as well as future lawyers, social workers and others—understand mental illness from the inside out. "I'm not a bad person," she explains. "I was just a sick person doing bad things."

Becker also has her own, very ad hoc charity that she self-funds (no foundation, no website, no donations), Project Q-Tip. She hands out to Orange County's homeless people hundreds of little baggies with the cotton ear cleaner, a mint and referrals to service organizations.

Kelly Thomas was killed in July 2011 by six Fullerton police officers who apparently had little idea of how to interact with the schizophrenic man. Kelly's father, Ron, himself a former OC sheriff's deputy, applauds the effort behind CIT. "It's invaluable to get the perspective of someone who's mentally ill or has been homeless," he argues. "There's some cops you just can't change. But for most, it would help. Once you understand it's the disease, not the person, you won't overreact. It could prevent what happened to Kelly. And once they go through the training, you can hold them accountable."

* * *

The day she cracks the cops-eat-doughnuts joke, Becker is speaking on the "consumer panel" at a CIT seminar. A spokesperson explains that "consumers" is the politically correct way of referring to people with mental illness, those considered to be "consumers" of mental-health services. The training program, run by Golden West College, covers many topics, from understanding types of mental illness to "suicide by cop." There are about 25 officers in attendance, including a burly, bearded biker and six women.

The speakers include Frank Woodard, an attorney and realtor; Scott, a former police officer who preferred to not be identified by his last name; and Becker. Each has a story.

Woodard delivers a number of disturbing statistics. In 2009, 20 percent of prison inmates were found to have severe mental illness. Neuropsychiatric ailments such as mood and thought disorders account for 45 percent of disabilities in people from ages 16 to 25.

This provides a natural segue to the story of Woodard's son, a high-school student who worked at Carl's Jr. Diagnosed as schizophrenic on his 17th birthday, later that year, he had his skull cracked in an unsolved beating. For a while, he didn't know who or where he was. "An Anaheim officer talked to my son for an hour after his injury and got him to a hospital," Woodard says. "He told me, 'I know it's not your son; it's his disease.'"

Now 26, Woodard's son has had seven hospitalizations. "We've had the police at my home more times that I can count," he says. The young man is starting to read more, using his computer and trying to quit smoking (he's gone from four packs per day to one). He still laughs uncontrollably, which makes people uncomfortable, Woodard says. Still, he's become compliant with his medication. "He's stable; with schizophrenia, that's all you can expect. It's truly a day at a time."

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