Visiting with Isabel

 “Now we’re going to have to start all over again,” Isabel Bravo, retired long-time president of the Placer County CA chapter of National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), told me Monday. She said she’d met last week with the new police chief in her city, Roseville, and he didn’t know anything about NAMI training programs for departments to build “crisis intervention teams” so that police could identify the mentally ill, differentiate them from people either stoned or drunk, disarm them if necessary, and talk them down from “the ozone.”
Strange, I thought. Dee Dee Gunther, spokeswoman for the Roseville PD and another voice from my past as a reporter in that town, had told me the week before that the teams were alive and well in Roseville and at the county sheriff's office.
Since I met Isabel eight years ago, she figured that from the first two officers trained at that time the number of officers trained in mental illness crisis intervention had reached about 30 throughout Placer County, which stretches from the suburbs of Sacramento to the shores of Lake Tahoe.
When I began to research a newspaper story about local police shooting a violent, mentally ill man, the last thing I imagined was that anything good would come out of the story. I'd forgotten it until sections from Patrick and Henry Cockburn's book, Henry’s Demons, about the experience of schizophrenia, the experience of the patient and of the afflicted extended family, recently appeared in CounterPunch. It brought back the shock  I’d walked into when my editor and I decided to get some revenge against a police department who had obstructed our efforts for six months to report on crime in Roseville.
For once, we had an edge on them – an eye witness to police shooting, a witness even more hostile to the police than we were – and we jumped on that advantage and produced what in newsrooms is called a “tick-tock,” a step-by-step description of a policeman shooting a mentally ill man.
The editor and I could not get over our good luck. We even provided a diagram showing the perp, the shooter, and the two other officers, one holding a dysfunctional taser, the other, who would not release an attack dog.
That afternoon a man around 30, a diagnosed schizophrenic, at the moment off his medication and out of his shelter, was on the prowl for money to buy more speed. Neighbors reported that he beat up his grandmother for drug money. When he left her house he was in bad shape, unsteady on his feet, disoriented, mumbling, and armed with a steak knife. Alarmed neighbors called the police, who arrived there. It wasn’t the first time he had broken loose and beat up his grandmother for drug money.

On the street, three officers approached him from different directions. One had a taser, one had a dog, and the third, in uniform, tried to talk him down. As the deranged man drew closer to the talking officer, the officer with the taser tried but failed to fire the devise. The officer trying to talk him down told him to stop but he kept coming. The officer drew his weapon and ordered the deranged man to drop the knife and stop. The man kept coming. 


The police are trained to shoot someone coming at them with a knife when the individual gets within 20-30 feet of the officer. For example, a man wandering around Las Vegas with a butcher knife in his hands, who would not put it down when ordered to by police with guns drawn, was shot to death four days ago. Reports of someone slowly approaching a police officer in a menacing fashion and ignoring direct orders to stop are not unusual. This behavior often means the individual is attempting to commit "suicide-by-cop."
When the officer fired, he took down the mentally ill man, but broke only one bone in his shoulder. The officer had lined it up so that after the bullet passed through the man with the knife, it buried itself harmlessly in a thick wooden fence.
The wounded man was taken to the hospital and later housed in a facility for the mentally ill. I checked up on his status from time to time but never heard of the district attorney charging him.
When we published out story (complete with diagram) in the Roseville Press-Tribune in 2003, I was contacted by Isabel, owner of a Mexican restaurant called  “Old Town,” located near the largest rail yard west of Nebraska. The Bravos had a son who was bipolar and had been having his own run-ins with the police and Isabel had been trying for several years to get the Roseville police interested in training a crisis intervention team for the mentally ill. The program had been developed by the Memphis Police Department in 1988 and CIT trainings have been slowly spreading across the country ever since. NAMI’s Washington DC headquarters spokesperson, Laura Usher, estimated 1,500-2,000 police departments have officers with this training now. Isabel told me the article might help her and other NAMI members in Placer County persuade Roseville and the sheriff’s department to take the issue more seriously.
She was successful. Serveral weeks later, Isabel held a celebration to congratulate a Roseville police officer and a sheriff deputy for having completed a CIT training program in San Jose. The NAMI chapter even gave us an award for having brought public attention to the problem.
The deputy told me that on his first shift after taking the training, the department had received a call about a man wandering on the shoulder of I-80 along its sunken path through Auburn, the county seat.
“We’ve got trained officers in Colfax and Lincoln now,” Isabel said this afternoon, “but not in Auburn. They say they don’t have any mentally ill people in Auburn.”
The deputy said the man had wandered off the interstate to an In’n Out burger shop, where the deputy found him frightened and disoriented.
“It’s an injustice how they treat them. The jails are full of unmedicated mentally ill people. You have to talk to them real slow,” Isabel told me again today, “like you were reading a grocery list, and you have to give them space and quiet. And things like the strobe lights on squad cars throw them for a loop.” (Most techniques that disorient people so that police can gain control provoke rather than subdue the mentally ill.)
The deputy told me he had done that and had calmed and reassured the man, and afterwards had him taken to a hospital without a fuss. The deputy then told me that of all the parts of the training that he’d taken, the one that had most impressed him and communicated to him the reality of a schizophrenic person off medications and out in the world was an exercise in which the officer was placed in the center of 12 people, each telling him a different message, and a thirteenth person outside the circle telling him the only message he was supposed to hear, understand and obey.
As we step back in these absurdly corrupt times and take a nervous inventory of remaining community resources, we realize again that people like Isabel Bravo, the volunteers, are the core of every community in this country, the heart and soul of what is left. While the community disorganizer in the White House continues to tear the country apart in the service of special interests, the grassroots aristocracy of our neighborhoods, towns, cities, counties and regions that keep on “starting over again” every day
Looking back, she recalls, “We’ve trained them over the phone when a policeman has called from a situation involving a person out in the ozone. If they know how to handle them, they can even disarm them. Sometimes violence has to be met by violence, but we want train that policeman so that he can go home, not be killed or wounded…I’ve trained a judge in Yolo County, a district attorney and an attorney.”
But, Isabel concluded, the program is waning in her town and county and they are going to have to start all over again to increase awareness of police about mental illness.
Looking forward, she asks, “What are we going to do with these veterans? We just throw them out there.”