Local News

Thursday, Jan 26 2012 09:59 PM

Shooting raises questions about law enforcement's work with mentally ill

BY RACHEL COOK Californian staff writer rcook@bakersfield.com

As more details emerged Thursday about the officer-involved shooting that left an 18-year-old dead, both law enforcement officials and mental health leaders offered perspectives on some of the most difficult calls they face.

Kern County Sheriff's Chief Deputy Shelly Castaneda said situations involving mentally ill people make up a small percentage of the overall calls for service, but they are some of the most unpredictable.

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"We're trying all we can to equip our deputies with the best possible training," she said.

The shooting raised familiar questions, including how serious the threat to deputies was and if officers train for this type of situation. The young man's family said he suffered from depression and schizophrenia and had been under stress.

The investigations of local officer-involved shootings rarely result in the release of much public detail. The majority of officers' actions are found to be within department policy.

Two Kern County Sheriff's deputies shot and killed Christian Chavez in a Buttonwillow park Monday after he pulled a knife out his pocket. Deputy Jeremy Storar and Deputy Tommy Robins from the Buttonwillow Substation were dispatched in response to a call from Chavez's caseworker, who reportedly phoned 911 after Chavez made suicidal comments.

While the coroner's office announced Thursday that Chavez died from multiple gunshot wounds, Sheriff's Department spokesman Ray Pruitt said the final report on the incident will likely take about 90 days to complete.

Pruitt said the autopsy report would not be released Thursday. "We don't release any reports until the final report is ready to go," he said.

The deputies are on paid administrative leave pending a review of the incident, as is routine following officer-involved shootings.

While a Sheriff's Department news release said Chavez tried to stab one of the deputies who responded to the call, Paul Chavez said witnesses said his brother pointed a knife at his own chest.

Pruitt said the investigation into the incident is ongoing and that he had no comment on the family's account. However, he said Storar was standing behind Christian Chavez, conducting a pat down search when Chavez suddenly turned in Storar's direction with a knife raised in his hand.

"At that point both Deputy Storar and Deputy Robins fired and struck Mr. Chavez several times," Pruitt said.

Kern County Mental Health's Mobile Evaluation Team was called to assist with the situation but the shooting happened before they reached Buttonwillow, Pruitt said.

The family is consulting a lawyer.

The caseworker's employer would not comment on what kind of mental health worker she is. The caseworker is employed by College Community Services, with which the Kern County Mental Health Department contracts. The employer is a subsidiary of Providence Service Corp., based in Tucson, Ariz.

"I'm just not at liberty to talk at all about the case," Ginny Romig said by phone Thursday. She hung up when asked to clarify her title. Providence Service Corp.'s website lists Romig as state director.

Kern County Mental Health Director Jim Waterman, who has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, did not know the specifics of Monday's situation but said calling law enforcement is what any mental health worker, licensed or not, would do if they thought someone might harm themselves.

"Calling law enforcement is the right thing to do in a situation when you're concerned about someone's safety," Waterman said. "That's not out of the ordinary at all."

Mental illness in mind

News of the shooting brought local mental health consultant and therapist Russ Sempell back to his own experience almost 10 years ago when his brother was shot and killed by a Kern County deputy.

"When a coroner knocks on your door at midnight on a Sunday night to tell you that your brother has been killed on the streets of Bakersfield, it's pretty shocking," Sempell said.

According to Californian archives, Sempell's brother charged a deputy with a knife raised in his hand when he was shot. Sempell said his brother suffered from bipolar disorder and addiction.

"I was asked, 'Are you going to sue the county?'" Sempell recalled. "I said, 'No, but let's work together to make sure this doesn't happen again.'"

Monday's shooting doesn't take away from the good that has been done in the last decade, Sempell said, but highlights the need for more work, especially better preparation and training for law enforcement.

"If it saves one life like this young man out in Buttonwillow, isn't it worth it?" Sempell said. "How do you put a price tag on an ill, brain-disordered youth?"

Training officers

Last year, the Sheriff's Department organized the first Crisis Intervention Team training in Kern County to equip first responders, from officers to dispatchers, with tools to help defuse crisis situations and information on where to refer people struggling with mental illness for help.

Castaneda said the Sheriff's Department, Kern County Mental Health and the National Alliance on Mental Illness developed the 40-hour program's curriculum over three years.

About 40 deputies and a couple of dispatchers have participated in the local CIT training, along with some members of the Bakersfield and Ridgecrest police departments. The sheriff's department has 537 sworn deputies, not including detention workers. Castaneda said the department is focused on providing the course to field training officers, who train new deputies, and deputies in rural areas where the MET team is not as readily available.

Castaneda said the two deputies involved in Monday's shooting have not attended the training. However, all deputies receive some instruction on working with people with mental illnesses in their initial training and later take a tactical communication course, which also covers communicating with mentally ill people.

While she said it would not be appropriate to talk about Monday's shooting while an administrative investigation is under way, Castaneda said the training is another tool for deputies, but its lessons are not one size fits all.

"The bottom line is you know we have to always consider the safety of that officer and the safety of the people in that incident. Unfortunately, sometimes force has to be used to defuse a situation," Castaneda said.

These circumstances are especially volatile and deputies need some discretion in handling situations they encounter, she said.

"You can't just give a rule book and say, 'OK, if you come across somebody who's suicidal, you have to do A, B and C," Castaneda said.

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