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Painted Brain | Mental Illness Is Not A Crime
We're bridging communities and changing the conversation about mental illness using arts and media.
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  • August 6, 2014

Mental Illness is Not a Crime

Marlene Pinnock was walking on the 10 freeway when an LA CHP officer threw her to the ground and punched her repeatedly. The video can be found here:

Pinnock is a homeless woman with mental illness. The altercation, which took place on July 1, 2014, is the latest in a series between law enforcement and the mentally ill. On July 29, assembly member Sebastian Ridley-Thomas of District 54 held a joint meeting of the Justice Reinvestment committee “in light of recent events” to discuss “how law enforcement should deal with mentally ill persons” as stated in his email invitation.

The meeting, held at a Baptist church in South Central, was open to the public. Law enforcement, scholars, mental health workers, and community members all took turns at the microphone voicing their thoughts on the topic of law enforcement and mental illness.

“Giving individuals with mental illness everything costs less than giving them nothing,” said Rusty Selix, executive director of the California Council of Community Mental Health Agencies. He went on to say that giving individuals with mental illness wrap-around, all-inclusive support costs less than giving them no support at all. This is because, without support, these individuals usually end up interacting with police and going to jail, both of which are very costly. “In a study, police spent 20% of their time with people with mental illness,” Selix said. “This costs more than the entire budget for Mental Health.”

“Individuals of authority, such as police and parents, are those who will elicit the worst response from individuals in crisis,” Selix said. “The best is someone who looks like them, and has been where they are. The second best is a mental health worker.” Selix’s observations might explain why interactions with police and individuals in mental health crises often escalate. According to the CHP incident report regarding the altercation with Pinnock, the officer said that she “ignored his commands.” Such violent interactions between law enforcement and the mentally ill are the reason why family members are hesitant to call police, according to a Board member representing Kedren Mental Health Services.

“The cornerstone of successful dealings with mental health and law enforcement is trainings,” Peace Officer Robert Stresak said. The Memphis model, which was mentioned as the gold standard, requires forty hours of training. This is in stark contrast to LA’s policy of four-to-eight hours of training offered to law enforcement personnel on a voluntary basis.

Extended wait times at emergency rooms were a major factor cited by police when making the decision to take the mentally ill to jail instead of to a hospital. Before an individual can be evaluated at an ER, a police officer must often wait with them for hours. It requires far less time to take an individual to booking instead, and an officer may then get back on the street more quickly. Another factor mentioned at the meeting was the shortage of hospital beds. Even if an officer did wait in the ER (with a patient) for hours to be seen, there is often an insufficient number of beds in most mental health facilities to serve the needs of every individual experiencing a crises. However, even after the jails are far over capacity, they still make room for more people.

The overcapacity at jails and the growing number of inmates with mental health conditions are the reasons for the proposed new jail for the mentally ill in LA. The law enforcement panel seemed divided on this issue. One law enforcement official asked the legislators in attendance to give them the $2 billion for the proposed new jail for the mentally ill, while Earl Paysinger, assistant chief of the City of Los Angeles Police Department said, “Mental illness is not a crime.”

Malia Javier Fontecchio is a frequent contributor to Painted Brain News




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