State Funds Classes To Teach Law Enforcement How To Interact With Mentally Ill, Majority Of Officials In OC Haven't Taken It

As the Kelly Thomas beating death in Fullerton has put interactions between law enforcement and the mentally ill under a microscope, we wondered just how well-prepared OC's cops were to deal with such situations. Turns out that California's Mental Health Services Act funds a two-day training class that teaches law enforcement officials how to interact with the mentally ill.

Even so, a majority of the county's law enforcement officials haven't taken the class. 

The Orange County Health Care Agency (HCA) contracts with the Criminal Justice Training Center at Golden West College, in Huntington Beach, which teaches the classes. 

Ron Lowenberg, dean of the training center at Golden West College, says during the 16-hour course, which is spilt up into two days, the officials interact with people with mental illnesses or family members of the mentally ill.

During the training, there's a discussion panel, Lowenberg says, and people share personal anecdotes and then field questions from the law enforcement officials.

Lowenberg says he thinks the program has been very successful. "We've had students come back to us later and say they believe they were able to defuse a bad situation based on training from that course." 

The college offers one training session per month--sometimes two--and has a contract with the county at least through this fiscal year, Lowenberg says. "Our goal is to reach out to the agencies and at some point have 100-percent participation, although, who knows if we'll ever get there." 

Since the classes became available in October of 2008, about 900 Orange County law enforcement officials have taken the training, says Annette Mugrditchian, HCA's division manager for adult mental-health services. There's no cap on the funding, though, she says, which means a lot more law enforcement officials could take the class. "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." 

Thirteen of the Fullerton Police Department's 145 sworn officers have taken the two-day training class, says department spokesman Sgt. Andrew Goodrich, but he said he couldn't comment on whether any of the officers involved in the Kelly Thomas beating had taken the class, since they haven't been identified. 

The county doesn't keep track of its total number of sworn law enforcement officials, a combination of sheriff's deputies and police officers, says John McDonald, a spokesman for the Orange County Sheriff's Department. But, the sheriff's department itself has 1,700 deputies, he says, adding that there are 22 other police agencies in the county, too.


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