‘We should have had this 20 years ago’: Sheriff’s Office gets training for people in crisis

Sometimes, when Brendan Boyd-Goodrich is approached by other people or put in situations that can be intimidating, his body stance will inadvertently lock up. In frustration, he’ll start biting his lip.

If the young Paso Robles man, who is autistic, were approached by police in public, officers may not be able to elicit a desired response.

Worse yet, they might see his actions as aggressive.

“Sometimes, I don’t look (people) in the eyes, but I am a nice person,” he said softly before a group of about 40 sheriff’s deputies, behavioral health workers, dispatchers and investigators from a host of San Luis Obispo County agencies Thursday morning.

Boyd-Goodrich, who works as a pastry cook at Templeton’s The Fig at Courtney’s House, which provides job training and employment to people with developmental disabilities, was providing insight to the group about usual behaviors people with autism may share and how to effectively communicate in law enforcement situations.

His father, Andrew, said that for his son, asking leading but helpful questions evokes the most productive responses.

The Boyd-Goodriches’ presentation in the conference room of the County Jail’s Honor Farm was one of several items on the agenda for Day 4 of a weeklong course on how to identify and appropriately handle mental health issues in the field.

Brendan Boyd-Goodrich answers questions from his father, Andrew and Dr. Debra Balke, a specialist in pediatric neurology at the Central Coast Autism Spectrum Center. Brendan is autistic and he demonstrated how a question and answer encounter could go. The Sheriff’s Office is conducting mandatory mental health training for staff. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Crisis intervention training, as it’s known, is not new to California counties but was recently adopted in here as part of a long list of recent reforms related to the treatment of people with mental illness, especially those who find themselves in the criminal justice system.

Those reforms, which include rewritten Sheriff’s Office and Behavioral Health policies, newly formed Community Action Teams comprised of police officers and social workers, and new facilities to treat people in mental health crisis, have been implemented following a $5 million settlement to the family of Andrew Holland, a schizophrenic Atascadero man who died of an embolism due to being restrained in jail custody in January 2017.

The 40-hour course, which is also available to professionals in relevant fields outside of law enforcement, is now mandated for all sworn staff of the Sheriff’s Office.

Sharon Holland, Andrew’s mother, said on Thursday she’s encouraged to see the change in mental health awareness on the part of law enforcement since her son’s death.

Calling it “an amazing experience,” Sharon Holland has attended the week’s crisis intervention training on behalf of the nonprofit Andrew Holland Foundation, at the invitation of the Sheriff’s Office.

“The quality of the training, the depth and the overview, it really exposes all their officers, the patrol, the correctional guards, even the dispatchers — every one of them is getting this training,” she whispered during one of the presentations.

“It’s about empathy and compassion, and that’s very much needed for everyone’s safety,” she said.

Positive outcomes

Toby DePew, who is one of several deputies assigned to the Sheriff’s Office’s Community Action Team, among other mental health-related duties, said during a break Thursday that since the county began providing the training in August 2018, more than 400 hours of coursework has been provided to roughly 300 law enforcement and correctional officers, as well as other personnel.

The idea, in short, is to provide tools to increase the safety of both first responders and those in crisis, and work to find ways to keep those with mental health needs out of jail.

“What we’re trying to do is provide training to interact with our most vulnerable population in a positive way, for the most positive outcomes,” DePew said.

Toby DePew, a San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office Community Action Team (CAT) deputy, talked Thursday about the department’s crisis intervention training to help law enforcement better understand mental health and related issues. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

The course includes presentations from groups like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), and education on topics such as psychotic, personality, and mood disorders; psychoactive medications; emotional intelligence, children and adolescent mental health, substance abuse, Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia; involuntary holds; homelessness; traumatic brain injuries; suicide by cop and suicide intervention; case law; developmental disabilities; weapons prohibitions; and use of force.

Later Thursday, the group was scheduled to attend virtual reality scenario training at the sheriff’s station in Los Osos. On Friday, they plan to go to Cuesta College, where the drama department will provide actors for real life situational training.

The size of the classes, as well as the seating together of staffers from different departments who might not normally communicate with each other, fosters collaboration and an opportunity for participants to ask questions.

“One positive byproduct is that we’re all kind of coming together, it’s bringing everybody into the same room,” DePew said. “There’s healing; there were agencies that at one time might not have been happy with each other, but when people sit down together and start learning together, it’s been pretty amazing.”

He added: “We should have had this 20 years ago.”

Developmental disabilities

Not all law enforcement contacts in the field involving a mental health component involves a crisis.

Nearly half of Thursday’s group shot up hands when asked who had come into routine contact with people with developmental disabilities while on the beat.

Dr. Debra Balke, one of the few child neurologists on the Central Coast, presented to the group an overview of autism, as well as other conditions such as cerebral palsy and epilepsy, plus various strategies to best interact with people with those medical issues.

Dr. Debra Balke, a specialist in pediatric neurology with the Central Coast Autism Spectrum Center, presented as part of a weeklong crisis intervention training for law enforcement officers Thursday on how health conditions like autism, epilepsy and cerebral palsy can be identified and appropriately responded to in the field. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

“The main goal is so that you get home safe, and so the individual goes home safe,” Balke said.

Balke, who has two adult children with developmental disabilities, said that people with autism can come into contact with law enforcement after running away, being the victims of abuse, showing physical aggression, becoming engaged in criminal matters, or when they’re mistaken for being intoxicated.

Many officers may become confused or frustrated by an autistic person’s failure to comply with commands, or with a person’s echolalia, or the repeating of words spoken to them.

Of her son, who is a competent driver, Balke said she is “terrified” of him being pulled over in traffic simply because of how he may or may not communicate with an officer.

People with autism can present special challenges for interactions with law enforcement. They are at high risk for asphyxiation when placed in prone positions, can become agitated easily, may have abnormal responses to pain, and may be overly sensitive to lights and noises.

“These can be high-risk situations because the kids might not do what you would expect them to; their attitude may not be appropriate,” Balke said. “If I were a first responder, I’d really need to know this stuff.”

Something other than jail

Building on early successes of teams formed by the San Luis Obispo Police Department and the Sheriff’s Office, three members of Paso Robles’ new Community Action Team attended this week’s course.

Paso Robles Sgt. Terry Afana said during a break that the training is “paramount” to he and his colleagues’ success in bridging law enforcement and social work when it comes to the city’s mentally ill population.

Hearing from other officers and county employees is helping them figure out which aspects of other jurisdictions’ programs Paso Robles wants to mirror, he said.

“This class is giving us the structure,” Afana said.

The Sheriff’s Office’s DePew said that the program’s next step is to find ways to bring in more officers from neighboring jurisdictions that do not have their own CAT Teams.

“It’s a change in culture of how we do business,” he said. “As a region, we need to have something else (for people in mental crisis) other than jail.”

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Matt Fountain is The San Luis Obispo Tribune’s courts and investigations reporter. A San Diego native, Fountain graduated from Cal Poly’s journalism department in 2009 and cut his teeth at the San Luis Obispo New Times before joining The Tribune as a crime and breaking news reporter in 2014.