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Orange County deputy sheriffs get much more gun training than they do on de-escalating conflicts – something officials say they’re starting to rethink.

Currently, new deputy sheriffs get 99 hours of gun and chemical agents training during their time at the academy. 

Meanwhile, they only get 16 hours of de-escalation training. 

The same standard applies for new city police officers who go through the sheriff’s academy.

With so many shootings across the county, amid a national discussion around mental health and police shootings, many Orange County leaders are starting to question whether there’s a better approach when people are going through mental health emergencies.

Sheriff officials say they’re working to provide another 40 hours of de-escalation training to a subset of deputies who are transferring into the department’s new behavioral health unit, though a timeline for implementing that wasn’t made available.

Sheriff officials say that so far they don’t need extra money from county supervisors in order to expand de-escalation training. 

Meanwhile, they are asking county supervisors to approve a $7 million upgrade to their gun training range, which is up for a vote this week.

In Orange County, like in much of the United States, usually the first responders to 911 calls about a mental health crisis are police officers and sheriff’s deputies who have a few hours of training in mental health and de-escalation.

That’s largely because elected leaders have put relatively few resources into ensuring trained health and social workers are available for crisis response.

This has frustrated some city officials in OC, who are now taking matters into their own hands.

Cities are looking at hiring mental health response teams themselves – despite it being counties and not cities that have responsibility and funding for mental health services in California.

“Really, there isn’t a true mobile [mental health] crisis response program operating” in Southern California, said Huntington Beach City Manager Oliver Chi last week, as the City Council approved contracting a mental health response team.

“There is a tremendous need for mental health services. It is an epidemic in this country,” said the city’s police chief, Julian Harvey. “And this is essentially a better model for those individuals to get better treatment in a non-threatening way.”

Among the models being looked at by Huntington Beach and mental health advocates is CAHOOTS, an approach taken by the Eugene Police Department in Oregon.

Under that approach, non-violent calls related to addiction, mental health crises and homelessness are handled by a health team of a medic and a mental health crisis counselor rather than law enforcement.

Orange County leaders ranging from law enforcement leaders to mental health advocates say they want to see changes to how mental health calls are dealt with.

The public also sees room for improvement.

A recent Chapman University survey of OC residents found that while a strong majority believe police are doing a good job in maintaining public safety, more than 60 percent say police are doing a “poor” or “fair” job at responding to mental health crises.

Among those calling for change is OC’s top cop.

“I’ve said this before and I do mean this: Law enforcement should not be the first face of government that those experiencing crisis should know,” Sheriff Don Barnes said at his latest community briefing last month.

“They should not be interacting for the first time with somebody wearing a uniform and a gun. We need to increase our services with the right intervention strategies, social services strategies, that replace a law enforcement response. We should not be the lead role,” he added.

The sheriff called for “a multi-discipline approach” that involves “mental health clinicians and other providers.”

But advocates say Orange County is still far behind in actually making that a reality.

“Everyone, including our Orange County sheriff and Orange County district attorney, agrees that they shouldn’t be leading mental health and homeless efforts. And yet we’re still hearing things like…half of the people in jail are struggling with a mental health condition, and [that] there was nowhere else to put them,” said Brooke Weitzman, an attorney who represents homeless people with disabilities, including mental illness.

“No amount of de-escalation training will turn a sheriff [deputy] into a mental health professional or a clinician,” Weitzman said.

“If we’re actually interested in change, if we’re actually interested in looking at best practices to end violence against people with disabilities. If we want to end the criminalization of mental illness and substance use disorders….the only way we can do that is to follow the best practices, which is sending teams with medical personnel without guns,” she added.

That way, she said, “law enforcement can get back to the business of investigating.”

“We need them out there solving things that have already happened. And investigating the things that most of society would like them to be doing…if we pull them off of the social service work.”

Those kinds of funding decisions are up to the county Board of Supervisors, which directs how $7 billion per year in tax money is divided between law enforcement, health programs and other services.

The supervisors last held a public meeting on mental health services five years ago, when they asked the public and officials for input on what can be improved.

The largest spender on county supervisor elections is the sheriff deputies’ union.

And the deputies’ union is among the chorus calling for clinical health teams to be on hand to respond to mental crisis calls.

“Deputy sheriffs are not mental health professionals,” said Juan Viramontes, president of the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, in a text message to Voice of OC.

“It is not uncommon for these situations to be volatile and extremely dangerous to manage. Having a clinical mental health professional also respond to calls for public service, deputies can rely on someone with extensive mental health knowledge to aid in de-escalation,” he said.

“This can assist in the appropriate response to calls for service and better connect the individual to mental health services to reduce recidivism,” Viremontes added.

“Continuous training is extremely valuable and AOCDS continues to push for increased instruction, so our deputies are better equipped to manage any situation, not only for their safety but for the safety of the community.”

In response to questions from Voice of OC last week, two county supervisors said they want to see an expansion of de-escalation training and a conversation around improving responses to mental health crisis calls.

“I always support more training. You can’t go wrong with more training, for sure,” especially when it comes to mental health, Supervisor Katrina Foley told Voice of OC last week.

“As we look at cases where people may not understand the law because of their mental competencies, we need to make sure” deputies are trained, she added.

Foley said she’s open to another workshop or study session on mental health, and that she plans to have her own sessions focused on her largely coastal 2nd District.

“I’m always open to those kinds of workshops, hearings or study sessions. But I know that our office is going to be holding our own…working group sessions. This is a priority for me,” Foley said.

“I have a team I’m putting together to do a comprehensive review of what our mental health programs are within District 2.”

Supervisor Doug Chaffe said he wants to see the county expand its PERT program where social workers respond to mental health crisis calls

“They should be out there too” on such calls, Chaffee said, adding “that’s de-escalation right there.”

But the problem is “there aren’t enough of them,” he said of the number of staff on the county’s mental health response team.

“The police generally support it. Because they don’t want that kind of job, they’re not trained for it,” Chaffee added.

The supervisor said he plans to make expanding PERT a priority starting next year when he’s chairman of the Board of Supervisors.

Asked why he’s waiting until next year, Chaffee said that once he’s chairman, “it just gives it a little more umph if I make that a special priority.”

Asked whether, five years after its most recent meeting on the issue, the county should hold a public session on how mental health response can be improved, Chaffee said he didn’t see much value in that.

“I don’t see [much] value to it. We’re still understanding…We’re still in a pandemic,” he said.

“My priority at the moment is trying to get everyone vaccinated,” especially in the hardest hit areas, he said.

The other three county supervisors – Andrew Do, Lisa Bartlett, and Don Wagner – didn’t return phone messages for comment.

Many of the most expensive taxpayer payouts for lawsuits are over police responses to mental health crises.

One of the largest was $4.4 million the county paid out over the deputy shooting of Manuel Loggins, an unarmed off-duty Marine who was behaving erratically amid a fasting episode, according to a sheriff’s investigation. A deputy shot Loggins from the side and killed him when Loggins tried to drive away from the deputy.

And Fullerton police’s response in 2011 to a schizophrenic homeless man – Kelly Thomas – ended in Thomas being beaten to death by officers when he tried to run away, an expensive criminal prosecution of the officers, and a $4.9 million payout by city taxpayers to settle a lawsuit from Thomas’ family.

“Training, more often than not, leads to fewer incidents that create risk of liability,” said Foley, the county supervisor, who also is a longtime employment law attorney.

Weitzman applauded cities for looking at implementing best practices for mental health response like CAHOOTS, but said it would be better if the county took more leadership in a more cohesive plan.

“Because the county runs like five supervisors running their own little fiefdoms…we don’t have cohesiveness,” Weitzman said.

She called for the public and people affected by the current approach to be brought into the discussions.

“It is not uncommon in this county to see a room full of men having a conversation in a vacuum,” Weitzman said.

Voice of OC reporting fellow Hosam Elattar contributed reporting to this story.

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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