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Behind the Badge Police do what they can to help those with mental illness

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Lt. Chris Piombo

Posted: Monday, April 11, 2011 12:00 am

Everyone is angry out there. From the guy who “salutes” you with one finger as you both pull into the same parking stall outside of Walmart to the parent who wants to fistfight you next to the snack shack because his kid didn’t get to play shortstop that day; everyone is stressed and on edge. People are worried about everything from Libya, taxes, unemployment, the deficit, radiation, immigration, crime, the price of a head of lettuce and a gallon of gas, to the NFL lockout and Charlie Sheen.

Most folks do their best to cope with current events and move on. But combine that stress with mental illness and a gun and the end result can be a shooting like the one that took place in Tucson, Ariz. in January.

That incident took place because there was a deranged man with a gun in the Safeway lot that morning. The issue was his mental health, not talk radio or a permissive society.

One geriatric law enforcement official in Arizona took full advantage of his moment in the sun and confidently announced to the world that heated political rhetoric caused the shooting. He failed to take into account he was tainting the investigation and his conclusion was not based in fact. But he has an excuse. He’s 75 years old and probably hasn’t worked a beat since the Elvis ’68 Comeback Special.

As with any high profile incident like the Arizona shooting, people demand to know why law enforcement didn’t intervene and make the suspect undergo treatment.

America is a great country founded on the principle of personal liberty. Depriving someone of their freedom is a serious thing. Officers have to weigh the rights of the individual against the welfare of other citizens. Simply stated, the criteria for officers taking someone into protective custody is that there is ample evidence the person is a danger to themselves and others.

Cops in Lodi deal with the people with psychological issues on a daily basis. They include the guy who screamed, “I’ve got lasers coming out of my butt! I’ve got lasers coming out of my butt,” to the fellow who decided to strip off his clothes, paint himself red from head to toe, then run naked down the middle of Church Street.

Obviously some individuals with a psychiatric disorder can be much more dangerous.

Ken Melgoza and I were sent to a disturbance call on East Pine Street many years ago. We arrived and looked in through the open front door of the apartment. A woman was seated at the kitchen table with her back to us. She was speaking quietly with someone on the phone as she rhythmically stabbed the table with a shiny 12-inch butcher knife over and over again. Thump ... thump ... thump.

She didn’t realize we were there and we overheard her say, “A cop is going to die today.” We were eventually able to get her to drop the knife and take her to mental health.

Can something like Tucson happen here in Lodi? Unfortunately, the honest answer is “yes.” But it’s good to know our officers work diligently with San Joaquin Mental Health Services to try and prevent these types of incidents from occurring.

Most people with mental issues are not violent and just need help in one form or another. Our officers rely heavily on local mental health professionals when it comes time to assess the mental state of a person. We are very fortunate that San Joaquin County has the Crisis Community Response Team in place. This group responds to police calls in the field or in the home to assist people who are not yet a danger but need mental health treatment.

If officers in the field determine a person is a danger, they take them to Lodi Memorial Hospital where they are examined by a physician. County mental health sends someone up to Lodi the check on the person to see if they need further treatment.

LPD officers also receive department training on how to identify and resolve mental health situations successfully. Officer Jim Pendergast serves as our liaison between our agency and mental health. This relationship provides us with up-to-date information, training and resources that other departments might not receive.

One other case comes to mind. Officers dealt with a violent mentally ill woman on East Vine Street dozens of times over the years. She would often wave a knife at them and demand that they shoot her. They would usually have to wrestle the knife away from her and take her to mental health.

Our officers worked diligently with the district attorney’s office and mental health officials over a period of several months and, as a result, the woman is now receiving treatment and doing very well.

Solutions like that ultimately make our city a safer place to live.

Any comments, questions or advice for Behind the Badge can be e-mailed to Jeanie Biskup at jbiskup@pd.lodi.gov; mailed to Lodi Police Department, 215 W. Elm St., Lodi, CA 95240; or asked by phone at 333-6864.

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