My turn: Looking back, moving forward: Out of harm’s way

By From page A4 | November 28, 2012

Editor’s note — This is part 3 of a three-part series of columns by Denise Marie Siino. Part 1 ran on Nov. 14, Part 2 ran on Nov. 21. 

In Part 2 of this series, I provided an overview of the broader CIT ideal of cooperation and collaboration among multiple agencies to help the mentally ill stay safe and out of harm’s way in the event of a police encounter. Interdisciplinary collaboration, along with stronger leadership, was urged in the 2010-2011 Grand Jury report. With the multi-disciplinary team (MDT) meeting regularly, as well as the state-mandated Mental Health Commission, we are making great strides toward this ideal.

When CIT was first emerging in El Dorado County in 2008, agencies faced a tough challenge in how best to execute services to people in need. As Stephen Golding, PhD, put it, there must be a designated oversight person within the jurisdiction “that looks at the resources available, and knows how to bring them all together” at any given time.

In my extensive research, I learned that this oversight individual must have the experience to understand what field officers are facing as they encounter people with mental illness, and the ability to interpret what these officers write in their reports. He must have detailed knowledge of what each group or agency within the MDT does, and which agency would provide the best service in any given case. Of critical importance, this individual must be able to perform this role in a timely manner.

But if a mentally ill person has landed within the purview of Mental Health, why is police oversight necessary? Remembering the goal of CIT — to improve the likelihood of a safe and successful resolution during a police encounter — there are three reasons:

1) the aforementioned expertise and knowledge, which a non-law enforcement person would lack;
2) a police officer accompanying a case worker would help ensure the safety of everyone during a home follow-up visit (additionally, an officer has the authority to remove any firearms found in the mentally ill person’s possession, something a mental health professional alone cannot do);
3) a single oversight officer making calls to the necessary agencies is exponentially more effective and expedient than if numerous officers were calling in reports to these same agencies on their own individual cases.

CIT will work best in El Dorado County with a designated officer whose primary duty is CIT. Currently Sgt. Todd Hammitt is still the EDSO’s CIT officer, under the supervision of Lt. Jackie Noren. But with severe budget cuts within the department, Sgt. Hammitt’s primary duty is patrol. He has little time to perform the follow-up necessary to his role as CIT oversight officer.

Considering the county’s budget woes, is it worth the expense to help keep the mentally ill out of harm’s way? Let me begin to answer this by asking another question: Who are the mentally ill?

A 1999 report by the U.S. Surgeon General’s office states that 50 percent of the American population will experience symptoms of psychological distress. Examples are far reaching but include a person suffering mild depression…true for nearly everyone at some point.

The same report – backed up by more recent statistics put forth by the UCLA Center for Health Policy – states that 20 percent of the population will experience varying degrees of more serious mental conditions, such as PTSD, severe depression, disabling phobias and mood disorders, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Any of these scenarios can cause a psychological crisis that might require law enforcement intervention. Suddenly the picture of mental illness – even if only temporary – looks quite different from the individual with a cut and dry, stigmatizing disorder.

The other consideration when counting the cost of the CIT program is, how much money does it save? Cities and counties across the nation, large and small, are reporting savings ranging from 35-50 percent in all related services after implementing the CIT program.

It is not difficult to visualize the cost-saving trail here in El Dorado County: police receiving fewer calls for service involving the mentally ill due to better routine oversight of these individuals by multiple agencies throughout the county; fewer cases for the district attorney to prosecute; less court time; jails less impacted.

Not to mention the cost to jurisdictions forced to pay huge sums in civil law suits over a wrongful death, or the cost of taking police officers to trial in a criminal proceeding.

Earlier this year, Portland, OR paid $1.2 million to the family of Aaron Campbell, a mentally ill man who was killed by police in 2010.

To date, three Fullerton police officers are facing criminal charges ranging from manslaughter to second degree murder in the July 2011 shooting of Kelly Thomas, who also suffered from mental illness. An independent report presented to the City of Fullerton in August stated that what led to the fatal incident was “…a lack of accountability, oversight and proper training.”

These are not isolated cases. They are happening with more frequency across the country.

A 2001 Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling stated: “Even when an emotionally disturbed individual is ‘acting out’ and inviting officers to use deadly force to subdue him, the government interest in using such force is diminished by the fact that the officers are confronted, not with a person who has committed a serious crime against others, but with a mentally ill individual.” The opinion concluded that police must consider the fact that a person is emotionally disturbed in determining whether to use force.

All things considered, can El Dorado County afford to fully implement CIT? Can we afford not to? Inevitably, a crisis is looming on the horizon for someone suffering from mental illness. While the CIT program does not promise perfect results all of the time, it does offer hope for a brighter future for the mentally ill and their families.

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

Denise Marie Siino

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