A Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury report highlights the growing need for police to be extensively trained in how to deal with an increasing number of calls involving subjects who are mentally ill.
The report, titled “Police and the Mentally Ill” and published by the watchdog group in May, found that nine of the 31 people who died in officer-involved shootings from 2013 to 2017 were mentally ill. Twenty-two of the 56 total police shootings during that time involved someone with mental health issues.
The grand jury report recommended additional crisis intervention training for all field police officers. Gilroy is one of three departments in the county that require additional training only of its more experienced field training officers.
“The number of officers who have completed the additional mandated training varied as of the date of the survey, ranging from 100 percent in Campbell and Santa Clara to 19 percent in Gilroy,” reads the grand jury report.
Among local police agencies, Gilroy in 2017 had the lowest percentage of officers who have completed additional critical incident training above and beyond the basic requirements, according to the grand jury.
Gilroy Police Chief Scot Smithee explained that officers must undertake a minimum of eight hours of crisis intervention training in order to complete their basic Peace Officer Standards and Training and to become qualified to be a sworn police officer.
Smithee said the numbers in the grand jury report shouldn’t imply that his officers are not equipped to handle calls involving mentally ill subjects. He said Gilroy police officers respond to such calls frequently, without anyone being hurt or killed.
“I think we have a pretty good track record—there have been some serious ones where (officers) were able to talk them down,” Smithee said. “We deal with this kind of stuff a lot, and yet when have you ever heard of us shooting one of them?”
He added, “Mental health is one of the up and coming problems we’re seeing. It’s definitely an increasing problem in our society.”
Smithee explained that critical incident training helps officers understand what someone in a mental health crisis is going through when they respond to a call, and “how to react without escalating their behaviors.”
There was one fatal officer-involved shooting in Gilroy during the 2013-2017 period studied by the grand jury. Mental health was not a factor in that incident, according to the report.
On Feb. 25, Gilroy resident Steven Juarez died during a struggle with police who were trying to arrest him. This death did not occur in the period covered by the grand jury report, and the DA’s office is still investigating that incident. The cause of Juarez’s death has not been released by the coroner’s office, and it is unknown if he was suffering a mental health crisis when officers responded to arrest him.
At the Morgan Hill Police Department, 85 percent of the agency’s 39 officers have completed the additional critical incident training beyond the minimum, the grand jury reported. There were no officer-involved shootings in Morgan Hill during the period covered by the grand jury.
The District Attorney’s office determined that 28 of the department’s 31 officer-involved shootings were justifiable under state criminal law. The office was still reviewing the other three cases at the time the civil grand jury report was compiled.
The report gives a comprehensive summary of the level of training that officers in each of the county’s law enforcement agencies have received in responding to mentally ill subjects.
The grand jury report also lists a number of findings and recommendations for law enforcement agencies to improve and increase officers’ training in mental health crisis intervention. The full report can be found online at scscourt.org/court_divisions/civil/cgj/grand_jury.shtml.