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Opinion

Opinion: Calling 911 is Too Often Deadly, So We Don’t

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Why we won’t call 911: Too often, police officers’ response to mental illness is deadly

by Stacy Torres

(CalMatters) — The recent shooting death of Miles Hall, a 23-year-old African-American man in Walnut Creek who struggled with mental illness, reminded me of why I didn’t call an ambulance during my sister, Erica’s, psychotic break.

Mr. Hall’s family called 911 for help , as he ran around with a pointed metal object. The family described it as a garden tool and police called it an iron bar. The day before, his mother,

Taun Hall, notified the police department about their son’s worsening schizoaffective disorder, which can cause delusions, hallucinations, or disorganized speech. Police advised the family to call the police in an emergency.

Despite the family’s outreach, something still went horribly wrong. 

Two officers trained in crisis intervention, Tasers on hand, arrived on scene first and fired bean bag rounds to get Mr. Hall to drop the object. When he ran in their direction, which the family explains as an attempt to “run past” officers and toward home, they used a gun, instead of a Taser. 

The family filed a civil claim in June and a federal wrongful death lawsuit in September. Mr. Hall’s survivors and their attorney John Burris, said they want this case to serve as an example to California law enforcement of how not to respond to a mental health crisis.

“We are betrayed by a system that failed us, that we had no other option (but) to use,” Taun Hall said as quoted by KPIX in San Francisco. “What else are we supposed to do? We have no other options but to call the police.”  

These dangers have dissuaded my family from feeling comfortable calling an ambulance if Erica has another psychotic break.

Eight years ago a security guard at my family’s housing complex in New York City found my sister, Erica, wandering in a daze. She rambled about witchcraft and vampires and said she was going to Alaska. 

My sister had no known history of mental illness, but I knew she needed psychiatric help. I called the nearest hospital’s mobile crisis team and asked how quickly help could arrive. The dispatcher said someone would arrive within 48 hours. What kind of crisis intervention can wait two days for a response?

I asked about an ambulance. She warned me that if I called 911, the police would attend.

“Something to keep in mind,” she said.

Erica had never shown aggression before, but that morning, overcome by fear and her delusions, she hit my father and threw objects at me. 

She wanted to leave the apartment, and my father and I tried to prevent her from going outside again in her confused state. I pictured a struggle with police, given her uncooperativeness and desire to flee. 

She angrily told me there was nothing wrong with her. 

At 304 pounds, her size coupled with her agitation made her especially imposing that day. Instead of calling 911, I spent hours cajoling Erica to seek medical help before we finally managed to get into a cab to the hospital.

We’re lucky no police showed up that morning, since Erica’s out-of-character behavior the next day suggests she might have presented in a way that would have caused a police officer to use force in subduing her. 

She fought with hospital staff when people there to help tried to prevent her from leaving the ER. They tied her down in restraints and drugged her so heavily that she slept through the weekend.

“I don’t remember anything,” Erica says, of the events from that morning and the days afterward.

Erica spent three months involuntarily committed in a psychiatric unit, followed by years of treatment. Eventually she was diagnosed with schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder. 

Thankfully her medication has controlled the psychotic symptoms. Her own efforts and family and program support has helped Erica avoid inpatient psychiatric re-hospitalization.

She attends a psychosocial clubhouse in New York City, which provides volunteer, work, and educational opportunities and social activities, along with low-cost nutritious meals and caseworkers. Fountain House has given Erica continued support to weather the bumps.

Charleena Lyles, a pregnant African-American mother of four in Seattle, wasn’t so lucky. Neither was Deborah Danner, a 66-year-old black woman in New York. Both women had a history of mental illness and died in officer-inflicted shootings within minutes of police arrival. 

Last year, officers armed with Tasers killed three unarmed people with a diagnosed mental illness in a 10-month period in San Mateo County. These represent just a handful of deaths of people with mental illness or disability by police within the last few years.

Attributing these tragedies, whether gun or Taser-inflicted, to human error ignores systemic problems with how we address mental illness in the community. We’ve failed as a society when police are the primary responders to mental health crises. 

This shift in care for citizens with a mental illness, with the criminal justice system taking over mental health services, dates to the failures of the 1970s and 80s when people were moved from confinement in large public hospitals and released without adequate healthcare, social services and supportive housing.

Today, jails and prisons provide much of the inpatient psychiatric care in the United States.

Absent a major overhaul in psychiatric services, police will continue to play a frontline role in mental health emergencies. Police departments need to ensure officers can recognize a mental health crisis, receive adequate training in de-escalation techniques, and assess behavior that seems threatening with informed evaluation and not fear.

Urban police departments have begun increased training for handling interactions with emotionally disturbed people, modeled on the nationally recognized crisis intervention training—CIT—program used by nearly 3,000 law enforcement agencies. 

But the efforts are uneven and inadequate. While increasing, only about half of the San Francisco Police Department’s 1,869 full duty officers have completed the program. 

All Los Angeles police officers receive 15 hours of mental health training, which is a good start but far fewer hours than a full CIT course. 

Given the vast needs of diverse urban populations across the state, every officer needs CIT. But the programs remain underfunded and understaffed, as a recent Los Angeles County Sheriff Department report outlined.

And even that may not be enough, as the presence of CIT-certified officers has not prevented some of these recent shootings. 

In the case of officer-involved deaths, the question of whether officers should have used Tasers instead of guns isn’t the main discussion we should be having. Weapons shouldn’t be the first method of addressing a health crisis. And Tasers kill, too. They can cause cardiac arrest and death even when used “properly.”

With Taser-related deaths on the rise, communities across the United States have begun to reconsider their usage.

Given the unpredictability of interactions with someone in a psychotic state, police departments need to implement better safeguards to avoid heat-of-the-moment breaking of police procedure. Emergency 911 calls with any hint of emotionally disturbed behavior should require the presence of medical personnel from the beginning, with emergency service units arriving first and patrol officers as back-up. 

Calls from households with a record of prior police contact for emotionally disturbed behavior should be rigorously tracked and flagged, with CIT-trained officers required to respond. 

Officers need to focus on slowing down the interaction and buying time to ensure everyone’s safety, the hallmark of CIT training for encounters with emotionally disturbed people. 

Developing listening skills and empathy will lower the odds of violent outcomes to mental health emergencies and benefit all communities when emphasis shifts from aggression to de-escalation.

The bigger challenge is helping officers not to presume people with mental illness are a threat or problem. Stigma is powerful, and psychosis is frightening for everyone involved. 

Continued anti-bias efforts, coupled with crisis intervention training, is crucial, considering that many of these deaths involved members of racial and ethnic minority groups. Until we have a more humane, medically-informed system of police response, we will do whatever we can to avoid calling 911 for Erica in a crisis.

____

Stacy Torres is an assistant professor of sociology at UC San Francisco. Her sister, Erica Torres, contributed to this commentary.

This article is produced as part of WeHo Daily’s partnership with CalMatters, a nonpartisan, nonprofit journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.

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Coalition Appeals LA City’s Decision on La Brea Project

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La Brea Willoughby Coalition Appeals City’s Decision on 843 North La Brea … Want to Protect Citizen Rights

by Lucille Saunders, La Brea Willoughby Coalition President

La Brea Willoughby Coalition continues its fight to protect the quality of life, as well as the character and scale of the La Brea-Willoughby neighborhood in Hollywood by focusing on clarifying and enforcing all zoning laws. The coalition’s latest fight concerns the project located at 843 North La Brea Blvd. (See architectural rendering above.) The LA City’s December 17, 2019 approval of the project prompted the coalition to file its appeal on January 2, 2020.

The coalition is fully supportive of the project’s efforts to provide supportive housing for low-income or homeless Angelenos. Yet, the City is rushing to approve this project in an attempt to combat the housing crisis in Los Angeles. In the City’s haste to approve the project, valuable input from the surrounding community has been […]

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LGBTQ

The Bible Welcomes Every Color in the Gender Spectrum

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Robyn J. Whitaker for The Conversation

“God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” is a line I’ve heard more than once in Christian circles. The Bible is often evoked to support so-called traditional views about gender. That is, there are only two binary genders and that is the way God intended it. But is this really the case?

Claims about gender in the Bible usually begin with the creation narratives. But the Adam and Eve story is also not as straightforward as it might appear when it comes to gender, namely because in English, we miss the Hebrew wordplay.

Adam is not a proper name in Hebrew, but rather the transliteration into English of a Hebrew word a-d-m. Using the imagery of God as potter, “the adam” is a humanoid being created out of the adamah (the earth).

Biblical scholar Meg Warner writes we might best translate this person as “earth creature”. The first human appears genderless.

In fact, gender roles are only introduced into the story when a counterpart is made for the earthling, when this human being is separated into two. At that point, they both become gendered: “Eve” is called woman (ishah) taken from the man’s (ish) rib.

Some Christians have read a gender hierarchy into this text as Eve is called a helper – or “helpmate” in the old English versions – for Adam. This term, “helper”, does not indicate a subordinate status. It is a word frequently applied to God in the Bible, and so without any sense of inferiority.

On the sixth day, God created a gender spectrum

There’s no doubt traditional male-female gender roles are common in the Bible. After all, this is an ancient text that reflects the values of the societies from which it emerged.

In these societies, masculinity was the ideal and polygamy not uncommon. This makes it all the more astonishing there are moments of gender subversion and gender diversity found within the Bible’s pages.

Another creation story is found in the very first chapter of Genesis 1. It states:

God created the human in God’s image, in the image of God s/he created him; male and female God created them.

At first glance, this might seem obvious: God made two different, discrete sexes. But if we look at this line in its context, we see this creation account follows a poetic structure made up of a series of binaries that indicate the breadth of God’s creation: light and dark, seas and dry land, land creatures and sea creatures.

In the structure of the Genesis poem, these binaries are not discrete categories, but indications of a spectrum.

The sea and dry land merge on tidal plains. Some animals inhabit both land and sea. Darkness and light meet in the in-between spaces of dusk and dawn. God didn’t create night or day, but night and day, inclusive of everything in between.

If we apply this same poetic logic to humanity, a case can be made for sex and gender diversity built into the very fabric of creation. A creative diversity categorically called “good” by God.

Intersex and asexual affirmations

Queer and feminist scholars have highlighted other moments of gender subversion in the biblical text.

For instance, Jacob is “smooth” and “stays in the tent” – traditional female attributes in the ancient world. Yet he is chosen over his hairy, hunter brother to lead God’s people. Rabbi Jay Michaelson describes Jacob as “gender non-conforming”.

Megan DeFranza is a theologian who works on the place of intersex people in Christianity. While acknowledging that intersex is a modern term, she argues we find traces of intersex persons in the Bible in the language of eunuchs.

Jesus’ comment in Matthew 19:12 that “some are born eunuchs” is acknowledgement he was aware of intersex people and passes no judgement on those who don’t fit traditional male-female sex categories. In this passage, Jesus both affirms heterosexual marriage as well as intersex and asexual persons.

This is not an isolated case of affirmation. Isaiah 56 speaks of God being pleased with eunuchs who come to the temple and in Acts 8, a eunuch is fully included in the new Christian community through baptism. In neither case is change required of them before they can join the community in worship.

Being an ancient text, the Bible obviously doesn’t use the same language nor reflect contemporary understandings of gender, including transgender or intersex persons.

So we cannot simply pull a sentence or two from the Bible as if it offers the final word on sex and gender. Not only does the Bible reflect a pre-scientific worldview but also because the multiplicity of voices will never be captured in this kind of proof-texting.

What we can say is that the Bible affirms in various ways the potential goodness of all humanity and the inclusion of those who diverge from male-female gender norms.

While many churches remain unsafe places for transgender and gender-diverse people, it is imperative to highlight these subversive moments in an otherwise patriarchal text that challenge narrow perspectives, both then and now.

__________

This article is part of a series exploring gender and Christianity

Robyn J. Whitaker is a Senior Lecturer in New Testament, Pilgrim Theological College, University of Divinity.

The Conversation publishes knowledge-based journalism that is responsible, ethical and supported by evidence from academics and researchers in order to inform public debate with facts, clarity and insight into society’s biggest problems.

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California

California’s Local Governments and Schools Are in Economic Distress

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by Dan Walters for CalMatters

CALIFORNIA — California’s economy has been booming for most of this decade and has generated a cornucopia of tax revenues for state and local governments.

The state has benefited most, because it collects income taxes. Californians’ taxable incomes have been soaring, especially for those atop the economic ladder, whose tax rates also have been increased.

The state has shared much of its multibillion-dollar windfall with schools, as required by the California constitution, increasing per-pupil spending about 50% in recent years.

Nevertheless, many school districts are in financial distress due to declining enrollment, unsustainable, irresponsible salary increases and, finally, state-mandated increases in payments to the California State Teachers Retirement System to offset its unfunded pension liabilities.

Last week, state Auditor Elaine Howle reported that audits of three big school districts revealed that state aid meant to enrich the educations of poor and English-learner students has often been diverted to cover budget holes.

Many school districts have asked voters for tax increases to close their budget gaps, most commonly through “parcel taxes,” which are levied on real estate. And the California School Boards Association is sponsoring a 2020 ballot measure that would hike personal and corporate income taxes to raise about $15 billion a year for schools.

Schools, however, are not the only local governmental agencies in fiscal distress. Cities, which receive almost no state aid and depend largely on local property and sales taxes, are also feeling the pinch for many of the same reasons.

Prior to issuing her report on schools, Howle released another revealing study on the fiscal health of California’s nearly 500 cities, highlighting those in the worst straits.

Generally, most in trouble are small cities, either in rural areas or in urban cores, whose residents have low incomes. No. 1 on the list is Compton, whose travails have been well documented over the years.

However, there are also a few larger cities that Howle highlighted, such as Oakland, No. 13 on the statewide list, and San Diego, deemed to be one of the top three “fiscally challenged” cities in its region.

The ratings are based on several factors, including liquidity, debt burden, financial reserves, revenue trends and retirement obligations. It’s clear that the last one looms very large.

The California Public Employees Retirement System saw its trust fund plummet in value during the Great Recession as its pension obligations mushroomed, leaving it with only slightly more than 70% of the assets needed to fully pay promised pensions and — so far, at least — unable to recover fully from its investment losses.

Therefore, CalPERS has been ramping up mandatory payments from local governments to reduce what it calls its “unfunded actuarial liability.” Cities get hit the hardest because they employ large numbers of police officers and firefighters who have the highest pensions and therefore the highest pension costs.

It’s not unusual for contributions for employees in so-called “safety systems” to reach 50% of payroll, and CalPERS has told city officials they will continue to climb.

Throughout the state, cities have asked their voters for tax increases, usually sales taxes but sometimes parcel taxes, to close their budget gaps with mixed results. But tax increases are particularly difficult to pass in communities with large numbers of low-income residents.

Howle’s report not only shines some much-needed light on municipal finances but includes an Internet portal for Californians to check on their own cities. And sunshine is the best disinfectant for bad management.

Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. Walters has written about California and its politics for a number of other publications, including The Wall Street Journal and the Christian Science Monitor. He also has been a frequent guest on national television news shows, commenting on California politics.

This article is produced as part of WeHo Daily’s partnership with CalMatters, a nonpartisan, nonprofit journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.

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