A 49-year-old Santa Barbara man died early Friday at Santa Barbara County’s Psychiatric Health Facility, where he had been admitted after an altercation at the Faulding Hotel, Santa Barbara police and Sheriff’s Department officials confirmed Monday.
Joseph Novoa Lopez’s death was reported more than 16 hours after he was Tased by Santa Barbara police officers who had responded to his residence at the Faulding Hotel, 15 E. Haley St., around 11 a.m. Thursday. A Faulding employee reported that Lopez was destroying his room and throwing items out of his window into the city parking lot below.
Emmet Hawkes, executive director of the Santa Barbara Community Housing Corp., the nonprofit organization that operates the Faulding’s supportive housing, was at the property during the incident and spoke with Noozhawk on Monday about the ordeal. He said Lopez had been “extremely erratic inside the unit” and that staff had had problems with him being disruptive the night before.
Lopez had been living at the complex for more than five years, said Hawkes, who described him as a difficult tenant. He said Lopez’s case worker came by often.
A police officer, familiar with Lopez from previous contacts, responded to the scene and knocked on Lopez’s door, according to Santa Barbara police Sgt. Lorenzo Duarte, a department spokesman. Lopez was naked when he answered the door, Duarte said, and the officer could see that several items had been broken and were strewn around the room.
After instructing Lopez to remain in his room, the officer called for assistance from police, Crisis & Recovery Emergency Services (CARES) and medics. Additional officers arrived at the hotel, and Duarte said they made contact with CARES personnel, requesting that Lopez be taken into custody for a 72-hour hold for being a danger to himself and as gravely disabled.
According to police, Lopez opened the door and addressed one of the officers by name, then began yelling profanities at him. Lopez’s hands were down at his side and clenched into fists, Duarte said, and the officer explained that he was there to help and that Lopez needed to go to the hospital. Lopez, who was described as 6 feet tall and 350 pounds, became agitated and began to walk toward the officer, who attempted to take hold of his arm. Lopez continued to resist, however, and another officer tried to subdue him unsuccessfully, Duarte said.
An officer then deployed his Taser, which struck Lopez in the abdomen, Duarte said.
According to Hawkes, Lopez became resistant when officers tried to get him to leave.
“When they Tasered him, it didn’t affect him greatly,” said Hawkes, adding that the weapon seemed to get Lopez’s attention more than incapacitate him.
Two of the officers knew Lopez and told him to relax, which he did, Hawkes said.
“He just relaxed, and they didn’t cuff him behind his back,” he said. “He just walked out.”
Lopez was taken to Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, where he was cleared medically. He then was admitted to the Psychiatric Health Facility at 315 Camino del Remedio, where he “was fine and very cooperative,” Hawkes said.
Hawkes said he was told Lopez was served dinner that night and later went to bed, but he never woke up. Around 3:45 a.m. Friday, Santa Barbara police were informed by the county Coroner’s Office that Lopez had died while at the PHF unit.
When CARES called him Friday morning, Hawkes said he expected to get the news that Lopez was fine. When he was told Lopez had instead died, “I was shocked,” he said.
The 16-bed Psychiatric Health Facility — operated by the county Department of Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services — has been under scrutiny since last year, when the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services initiated an audit of the facility after a patient death occurred in April 2010.
As Noozhawk has reported previously, the audit found a number of deficiencies, such as in the facility’s drug storage room, where staff said controlled substances routinely go missing and records are not kept to document the shortages. The report also said that facility oversight had failed to ensure patients’ rights were protected and that officials had failed to involve patients in their own plans of care.
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services signed off on the facility’s plan of corrections earlier this year, however, and ADMHS officials maintain they’ve fixed the problems outlined in the audit.
ADMHS Executive Director Ann Detrick and Medical Director Edwin Feliciano did not respond to requests for comment on Lopez’s death.
“Confidentiality laws prohibit ADMHS from releasing any information about care that may be provided to a member of the community,” Detrick wrote in an email to Noozhawk.
Santa Barbara police detectives are investigating Lopez’s case, and an autopsy was performed by the Coroner’s Office on Friday.
Drew Sugars, a spokesman for the Sheriff’s Department, which operates the Coroner’s Office, said Monday that a cause and manner of death may not be known for months.
After the autopsy, a person’s toxicology report results and medical history are all considered in determining a cause of death, which is “not something you can just snap your fingers and say, ‘Oh, that’s what happened,’” Sugars said.
Santa Barbara police officials did not respond to Noozhawk’s requests for Taser protocol, but SBPD began using the devices in 2006. The City Council approved the purchase of 145 devices and the staff report noted that Tasers were a nonlethal use of force method. The report also said the devices were expected to reduce the rate of officer injuries, which had resulted in $700,000 in losses for the previous five years.
Suzanne Riordan, executive director of Families ACT!, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping families of people with co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders, said mental illness is larger than a law enforcement issue.
“As family members with members struggling with mental health challenges, this story moves us deeply,” Riordan said in a statement.
Instead of calling mental health professionals before the crisis happens, police are often called in the midst of the crisis, said Riordan, adding that law enforcement is designed to deal with crime, not mental illness.
“When the mental hospitals were closed, the promised community mental health facilities were not funded, and our own community hospitals abdicated responsibility for admitting the mentally ill and addicted,” she said. “A vacuum was created that has come to be filled with Tasers and cops.”
Those results are often tragic, she said.
“It is not fair to saddle law enforcement with the job of addressing untreated mental illness,” said Riordan, adding that funding treatment facilities would save money and lives in the long run.