May 2015 Newsletter

May 29, 2015



A united effort by my office and authorities has ended a neighborhood eyesore and public health hazard that festered for years.

A section along Foss Avenue, bordering Intestate 680 and Alum Rock Avenue, had become a trash-strewn encampment for homeless people and a nuisance to neighbors, who brought their concerns to me and San Jose Councilwoman Magdalena Carrasco.

Our offices worked with the California Highway Patrol and the California Department of Transportation, to clean up the encampment. Eventually, the inhabitants were moved and a new fence was erected to guard the property. The city of San Jose's homeless services was dispatched to the scene to help the homeless relocate.


Police officers carry firearms, two-way radios and Tasers to deal with emergencies every day. But are they equipped to cope with people who have mental illnesses?

That question - whether officers are sufficiently trained to deal with this special population - was the focus of a California State Senate Select Committee on Mental Health Hearing that I convened in Los Angeles earlier this month. The testimony was especially revealing to me as the author of SB 11 and SB 29, legislation aimed to increase behavioral health training for officers. Both bills are currently in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

To support these two important bills that can save lives, I urge you to write to the Governor or other legislators. Click here for an example of a support letter. Please address your letter to my Capitol office: Senator Jim Beall; State Capitol, Room 5066, Sacramento, CA 95814-4900. My staff will deliver the letter for you.

At the Los Angeles hearing, mental health experts and law enforcement experts told the committee that greater mental health training for officers increases the margin of safety for both officers and people with mental illnesses while improving community trust and saving taxpayer dollars. The committee also listened to the testimony of former homeless people who dealt with police.

Vikki Vickers had lived on the street for over four years while grappling with untreated schizophrenia before finding a home at the Downtown Women's Center in Los Angeles. She testified about the fears that people with mental illness have about police and officers' misperceptions of them.

"Involuntary mentally ill behavior -- such as talking to oneself, flailing arms and legs, screaming at walls, etc. -- seems to be interpreted by police as criminal dangerous behavior subject to immediate arrest and incarceration. . . . .Mental illness is not a crime,'' Vickers said.

Retired San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne, who also once oversaw the San Jose Police Department, testified that expanding mental health training is imperative because officers must make quick and crucial on-scene decisions regarding whether to call for additional help, such as mental health services. Giving officers more mental health training is essential to "de-escalate'' encounters with people who have a mental illness, Lansdowne said.

Attorney Pamila Lew, of Disability Rights California, said her organization surveyed law enforcement agencies and learned officers devoted more time on mental health calls than any other type of call. Departments that spent more of their own resources to expand mental health training for officers had better outcomes, fewer injuries, fewer incidences of use of force, and less litigation.

"One chief told us, 'Either you take the time to pay for training now or pay more in the longer run,'" she said.

BART Police Chief Kenton Rainey said the majority of injuries to officers stem from cases with people with mental disorders. His department saw fewer injuries after implementing additional training to give officers more strategies and tools to defuse potentially dangerous confrontations with people with mental illnesses.

The result, Rainey said, was a dramatic decrease in officers injured while making arrests and a corresponding reduction in worker's compensation liability, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars for BART.