Jail death video prompts outrage from some SLO County officials, silence from others

The shocking video of Andrew Holland's final hours and death at San Luis Obispo County Jail has produced a politically polarized reaction from local officials, with those on the left expressing outrage and those on the right remaining largely silent.

Holland, who was suffering from symptoms of schizophrenia, spent nearly full two days in a restraint chair, and the video graphically captures him writhing naked on the floor, struggling to breathe and losing consciousness, along with reactions from jail staff that are at times inappropriate.

Sheriff Ian Parkinson and other county officials have refused to answer questions about why Holland was left in the chair so long, without even breaks to relieve himself.

"Without a doubt for me, it's the most disturbing thing I've had to deal with since I've been a supervisor in the county," said Supervisor Adam Hill. "From this raw footage, it's pretty clear to me that mentally ill people should not be in jail. Our people have not been trained to deal with this type of situation, and that's what we're trying to address."

Hill said that the handling of Holland's custody was "clearly a failure" and that he was disappointed in the response that Parkinson gave in the form of a statement over the weekend, saying "arguments are not what people want to hear."

"The sheriff has had a real failure to communicate and convey the proper message to the public," Hill said. "Obviously, there were some gaps in information from what he first told the family and the public. And in his response this weekend, I would have liked to see humility and compassion toward what has happened."

On Monday evening, Parkinson sent an email to The Tribune, saying "I have the utmost sympathy for the entire Holland family. I am truly saddened for what they've gone through during this tragedy."

"I have known some members of the family for over twenty years and can’t begin to fathom their sadness," Parkinson added. "I have never stopped thinking of this since the day it happened. ...There are the are no excuses or shifting of blame possible."

Contrary to the county’s initial account of the incident, the video shows that Holland wasn’t “found unconscious and unresponsive” and was not “under the continual care of a physician” at the time, as initially announced by the Sheriff's Office.

Parkinson released a statement Saturday, saying the mental health system failed Holland, who had "a long history of violence and mental illness," and that he "voluntarily stopped taking his medication."

Parkinson said that the Sheriff's Office contacted the Mental Health Department multiple times to get Holland transferred to a mental health facility, but the department refused to accept Holland.

Mental Health officials claimed that they were at capacity, though later it was determined the department "could have taken custody of Mr. Holland for treatment," according to Parkinson.

But County Supervisor Bruce Gibson, who had access to the video as a county official, like Hill, before Friday's public release, called it "horrible." Gibson said the "accountability of this rests with the sheriff" and the treatment of Holland calls for a "fundamental change of culture in the jail system."

"The sheriff is in charge of the jail, and he's responsible ultimately for these events," Gibson said.

Gibson said supervisors don't have direct control over the sheriff, who is elected by the voters, only over the office's budget. But it can help set the tone, Gibson said.

"The board has to assert some moral authority here to effect a culture change, not a culture of indifference," Gibson said. "We have to have a much more humane approach."

Gibson also noted "we need to do much better in county mental health services, so people don't end up in County Jail."

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Sheriff's Office deputies, county medical physicians and a Cal Fire medic team perform CPR on inmate Andrew Holland on Jan. 22, 2017, after Holland collapsed after being held in a restraint chair for nearly two days. San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Office

Gibson cited the county's Stepping Up initiative, a sweeping plan that reduces the number of mentally ill in the jail, as well as its plan to hire an independent contractor to audit county procedures as just two of the changes that he believe will improve the system.

Of the three county supervisors who make up the conservative majority on the board, none submitted responses by end of day Monday to questions provided Friday.

Debbie Arnold's assistant said she was in meetings Monday and unavailable to comment. Supervisor Lynn Compton's office — after first referring all questions to County Chief Administrative Officer Wade Horton — wrote in an email Monday only that Compton "shares the sentiments" shared by Horton in a news release issued following the video's release.

Board Chairman John Peschong did not respond to requests for comment.

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Andrew Holland

California Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham — a former prosecutor with the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney's Office and a vocal supporter of District Attorney Dan Dow, who is facing criticism for declining to investigate Holland's death — also did not provide responses to questions sent Friday.

However, a spokesman for Cunningham wrote in email Monday that his office is "researching whether changes in state law might be necessary to facilitate mental health transfers from jails in emergency situations.”

Congressman Salud Carbajal, who's older sister's life was cut short following a battle with mental illness, said in an emailed statement that Holland's case highlights the need for significant mental health reforms in the criminal justice system.

“I will continue to advocate for expanding funding in our mental health system and encourage local officials to pursue similar investments," Carbajal wrote. "Mr. Holland’s death also underscores the need for the independent FBI investigation to continue uninhibited to assess the facts and identify who is accountable for this tragedy.”

While no county official has called for Parkinson to leave his post immediately, San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon believes Parkinson should complete his term, but not seek re-election.

Andrew Holland Protest
Protesters gather in downtown San Luis Obispo on Saturday to speak out about the death of Andrew Holland in County Jail in January 2017. Laura Dickinson ldickinson@thetribunenews.com

"I call on Ian Parkinson to step out of the race for re-election and to step up to the job of providing for the basic health and safety of those in his custody," Harmon said. "We do this in honor of Andrew's struggle, and we do this so that this never, ever, ever happens again."

Harmon said her son suffers from mental illness and Holland could be "any of our sons."

"Mental illness does not care about race, gender, social class, or political affiliation," Harmon said. "... Our community failed Andrew. Our mental illness communities failed Andrew. The state and federal government failed Andrew. Our sheriff failed Andrew. But our silence will not fail Andrew."

"We depend on our elected officials to represent us — especially those in our community who are most vulnerable and who cannot advocate for themselves," Harmon added.. "We depend on our law enforcement officials to protect us. As an elected official, the office of sheriff is where these two things meet."

"We will use our voice and our presence to support a new way, new leadership, a new day in criminal justice," she said.

Parkinson, in his email sent late Monday, said his focus in on creating a better system and "to find ways to help people on the street and in custody stay out of the criminal justice system. Our focus continues to be to change a broken mental health system."

"We have made significant changes, not only to avoid something like this from ever happening again but also to make changes to how we deal with subjects with mental health issues in our society," Parkinson said. "Those changes were presented in front of the Board of Supervisors and are in various stages of completion."

Update: This story has been updated to reflect statements sent to The Tribune by Sheriff Ian Parkinson.

Matt Fountain: 805-781-7909, @mattfountain1
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