Plumas County, CA – Several jurisdictions in California have changed the way they respond to calls about people threatening to kill themselves in an effort to cut down on the number of people who commit suicide-by-cop.
New legislation that will elevate California’s use of deadly force law from when officers think it is “reasonable” to only when “necessary” is awaiting California Governor Gavin Newsom’s signature, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Plumas County Sheriff-Coroner Greg Hagwood said that things are changing because of pressure to reduce the number of deadly-force police incidents.
“In too many instances, we show up and further aggravate a crisis situation,” Plumas County Sheriff-Coroner Greg Hagwood told the Los Angeles Times. “And then, in the end, bad things happen.”
Sheriff Hagwood said that in an era where police officers’ use of force is constantly being scrutinized, law enforcement has to examine its legal and moral obligations to the communities they serve.
“We can’t always be everything to everyone all the time,” the sheriff said.
Sheriff Hagwood and his department have been under fire after they refused in June to go check on a man who had texted a suicide threat to his sister, the Los Angeles Times reported.
“This is the hardest part,” 63-year-old George Quinn texted his sister Carol. “Sorry for everything. You should call the Plumas Co sheriff and have them go to the garage.”
But when she called the police, she was advised that Plumas County deputies no longer responded to calls like hers because of the potential for suicide-by-cop, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Carol was told to go check on her brother herself.
“We were flabbergasted,” Carol said. “I think almost anyone assumes when you call the sheriff’s office for help that you’re going to get some help. And they refused to go.”
Carol and her brother’s neighbor found George dead in his garage and called the authorities.
The Los Angeles Times cited a study that showed that 36 percent of more than 700 officer-involved shootings were attempts at suicide-by-cop by suspects who provoked officers to use deadly force.
The same study showed that police killed the suicidal person more than half the time, and injured them 40 percent of the time. In only three percent of the incidents was the suicidal person unharmed.
Citrus Heights Police Chief Ron Lawrence, who is president of the California Police Chiefs Association, told the Los Angeles Times that taking a step back on suicide emergency calls happened as a practice rather than a policy at most police departments.
“Walking away, that is really counter-intuitive for police to do,” Chief Lawrence said. “But we have just learned through evolution that sometimes police presence is not the answer.”
Sheriff Hagwood, who is a 30-year veteran of law enforcement, said he thought it was “the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard” when staffers first brought the concept to him, the Los Angeles Times reported.
“It initially ran against every sensibility in my body because I’ve always subscribed to when people call needing help, we will go,” the sheriff said.
He said the new protocol was necessary because of the mental health vacuum in California.
“It is creating a vacuum,” Sheriff Hagwood said. “That’s where the behavioral health, mental health practitioners need to, in my opinion, recognize that the climate for them is changing as well. It’s changing for us. It needs to change for them.”
Police departments in bigger cities, such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, have added crisis intervention teams with specially-trained sworn officers and behavioral health professionals working in partnership, the Los Angeles Times reported.
“I tell you, it’s magic,” San Francisco Police Lieutenant Molina, who is the crisis intervention coordinator of his department, said. “It takes more than just cops.”
But smaller jurisdictions don’t have the bandwidth to incorporate mental health professionals in their 911 responses, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Mono County Sheriff Ingrid Braun pointed out that the closest emergency mental health bed for her county is in Bakersfield, five hours away.
Sheriff Braun said that her department was also selective about responding to calls about people threatening suicide.
“We kind of leave the person in the lurch, and that’s not ideal either,” the sheriff said.
She told the Los Angeles Times that she’s in discussions with county medics about having them answer those calls with police backing them up.
“There is a larger problem, not just the suicide problem,” Sheriff Braun said. “If you call because you are bottoming out and you need help, we send men with guns... Maybe this needs to shift the conversation.”
At least one suicide awareness organization strongly disagreed with law enforcement’s new more hands-off approach, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Suicide Awareness Voices of Education Executive Director Dan Reidenberg said that if police refuse to respond to suicide calls, suicide rates may rise.
“I don’t think it’s the right precedent or the right policy,” Reidenberg said. “We need law enforcement to be that stable, protective, strong force that shows up.”