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PLACERVILLE, CALIFORNIA
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My turn: Looking back, moving forward: Avoiding tragedy

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From page A4 | November 14, 2012 |

Most days pass without much special attention or reflection. Yet it is part of the human experience that certain events are branded into our memory, whether good or ill.

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A day that is seared into my memory is June 5, 2007. That is the day when I — a relatively new reporter with the Mountain Democrat — and a photographer, returning mid-morning from an assignment in Cameron Park, veered off Highway 50 at Ponderosa just moments after hearing on the scanner of a shooting nearby. We arrived at property on South Shingle Road. As the photographer snapped pictures of an EMT attending a fatal gunshot wound inflicted on the victim, I began taking in the surroundings, wondering who would shoot this man and why.

We soon learned that the victim, Art Mies, had been shot by his beloved but seriously mentally ill son Eddie Mies, who was still on the property. By the time noonday had passed, Eddie Mies also was dead, shot at the hands of an EDSO deputy.

This was not a solo event. Within a year, three other people known to have mental illness were dead at the hands of law enforcement: Rajan Vaid, 23, El Dorado Hills, (killed Sept. 11, 2007); Matthew Zaiser, 26, El Dorado Hills (killed May 24, 2008); and Mark Moody, 41, Camino (killed June 12, 2008).

The last shooting incident involving a mentally ill individual — in what the 2010-2011 Grand Jury report called a “disturbing trend” — occurred on March 28, 2010 when a 5150 detainee from Folsom, 39-year-old Linda Clark, escaped from Marshall Hospital in an ambulance whose keys had been left inside the vehicle. Clark was killed by Placerville police officers after a slow chase from the hospital to a driveway off Cedar Ravine, where the shooting occurred.

These events were tragic. For the families, certainly, but also for the officers involved in the shootings. I had occasion to interview three of these officers — one of the shooters and two others, each of whom were acutely impacted by the incidents. One officer later took her own life; the other two were forever scarred mentally and emotionally … all from performing their sworn duty to protect and serve the community.

Tragic indeed. But what would make these events even more heartbreaking is if we as a community did not learn from them new ways to handle these fragile individuals, the mentally ill in our midst, to try and avoid such catastrophes in the future.

I returned to freelance writing in late 2008 determined to learn what our local law enforcement agencies were doing to address this “disturbing trend” of shootings involving the mentally ill, as well as what other communities and agencies are doing across the country. I interviewed then-sheriff Jeff Neves, who also was deeply troubled by the rash of shootings and had assigned Sgt. Todd Hammitt the task of looking into what could be done.

I met with Sgt. Hammitt, who was in charge of officer training and had initiated a specialized training program called Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) for EDSO officers. (To date, eight deputies have attended an 8-hour CIT training workshop, with more slated to attend in the future. After the Linda Clark shooting in 2010, Placerville Police Chief George Nielsen attended the training. Since then most of the police force have also attended the 8-hour workshop.)

CIT originated in 1988 in Memphis, Tenn. through collaboration between the University of Memphis and the local police department in an attempt to fill the void in typical police academy mental health training. While recognizing that police officers are not social workers, the program acknowledges that law enforcement by and large are first responders in a crisis where someone is experiencing a psychotic episode, and families depend on these officers to know how to respond appropriately to their loved ones to help prevent fatal outcomes. The CIT program met with such success that it quickly spread nationwide.

The goal of CIT field officer training is to de-escalate tension at the scene between the officer and mentally ill individual, and reduce the need for use of force during the encounter to improve the likelihood of a safe and successful resolution.

This type of learned response is in contrast to the usual way officers might handle the average individual they encounter. This person might submit to the authority of the officer, or become ambivalent or belligerent, but at least he is capable of rational thought and behavior. Decades of academy training has taught officers to exercise a progressively firmer hand (e.g., louder voice, rougher language, more physical contact) in situations dealing with people who do not immediately obey their commands.

Mentally ill individuals, however, are not in control of their faculties. Their nervous system is not sending the proper signals to the brain, or the brain is scrambling the information. They may be suffering a psychotic break — a period of impaired functioning, or a distorted or complete lack of sense of reality — and may not be capable of responding appropriately to what is happening around them.

Making matters worse, people suffering from mental illness often self-medicate with drugs (illegal or prescription) and/or alcohol, which can enhance the feeling of normalcy while in fact hampering even further their ability to function.

CIT training includes learning to identify some basic signs and symptoms of mental illness (bipolar, schizophrenia, etc.); stabilization and de-escalation techniques, including the effective use of language in line with the mentally ill person’s heightened sensitivities; and hands-on experiential learning as well as role play and group problem-solving exercises.

Editor’s note: This is part I of a three-part series of My turn columns by Denise Marie Siino. 

Denise Marie Siino is a former writer for the Mountain Democrat and a current freelance writer. You can find her writing online at www.denisemariesiino.com

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