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‘Immediate Threats’ the Focus of Call-Outs for Mental Illness Welfare Checks

Mission & State Report: Questions linger over law enforcement’s April encounter with Isla Vista killer but officials say signs not always evident, cite legal limitations

[Click here to read more stories from the Mission & State in-depth journalism project.]

Other than being unseasonably warm, April 30 was a typical Wednesday night for the Santa Barbara County sheriff's deputies patrolling the streets of Isla Vista — quieter than the wild scene they often encounter on weekend nights in the densely populated community adjacent to UC Santa Barbara.

The record heat of the day had eased somewhat when, shortly after 10 p.m., four deputies, a UCSB police officer and a dispatcher in training arrived at Elliot Rodger’s dorm-style apartment on the 6500 block of Seville Road.

During this “check the welfare” visit — requested by a friend of Rodger who was worried about the young man’s mental health — the deputies didn’t encounter a crazed man, or even an angry one when they met him outside his apartment.

Rather, they found a soft-spoken, “shy, timid and polite” 22-year-old who appeared anything but menacing, according to Sheriff Bill Brown.

They apparently did not detect anything that would suggest the murderous rampage Rodger would unleash less than a month later.

An on-again, off-again Santa Barbara City College student who reportedly had been treated for mental-health issues for several years, Rodger had posted bizarre online videos ranting about being ignored by women and how he felt disengaged from the vibrant youth lifestyle around him.

During a 10-minute conversation, Rodger told authorities who had come to check on him that he didn’t fit in, and that the videos were a way to express himself to the world.

From the scene, a deputy used a cell phone to contact Rodger’s mother in Los Angeles. During the call, Rodger spoke briefly with his mother, and assured her he was “fine.”

Law enforcement officers did not enter his apartment that night, nor did they watch any of the odd videos he posted. They walked away from the scene believing Rodger was OK.

What they didn’t discover — and perhaps had no way of discerning — was that Rodger had a malevolent plan to exact “retribution” from his fellow Isla Vistans.

Less than a month before Elliot Rodger killed six people and injured many more in a murderous rampage, he was visited by sheriff’s deputies who went to his Isla Vista apartment on a "check the welfare" call after a friend reported he might be having mental-health problems. (Photo from Elliot Rodger’s Facebook page)

It was a plan that Rodger would soon execute, on May 23, when he stabbed three people to death, shot and killed three others, and injured 13 more before taking his own life with a gunshot to the head, according to the official account.

The mass murders gained international headlines, and also raised some ominous questions. Did the system fail by not somehow stopping Rodger’s meltdown? And how well equipped are public agencies to deal with potentially violent, mentally ill people?

“It is a question of hindsight,” said Dr. Ole Behrendtsen, medical director for Santa Barbara County Department of Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services. “It is easy to apply the lens of possibility to something that has already passed and construct a scenario where the outcome that didn’t occur, occurred. That could be done in any event.”

Many layers exist within the safety net to help people with mental illness, but the process of intervention and prevention — by law enforcement and mental-health workers — is surprisingly common and often fluid.

Sometimes, as appears to be the case with Rodger, law enforcement handles the response entirely on its own. Other times, the county’s Crisis and Recovery Emergency Services (CARES) team is called out to make an assessment and develop a plan of action.

Deputies did not ask the CARES team to respond to Rodger at his apartment.

Brown and his spokeswoman, Kelly Hoover, chose not to respond to many of the questions around the Rodger’s case posed by Mission & State, citing the ongoing investigation. However, they did confirm that CARES was not called in.

In the wake of the Isla Vista killings, the Sheriff’s Department determined that the deputies who responded handled the call in a professional manner “consistent with state law and department policy.”

Elliot Rodger is seen in a video he posted on YouTube called "Life is so unfair because girls don’t want me." Sheriff’s deputies made a "check the welfare" visit on Rodger less than a month before his deadly rampage after a friend viewed videos he had posted.

CARES has 16 full-time clinical staff workers. Its mobile crisis team is available 24/7 to conduct psychiatric evaluations, but law enforcement needs to call them — otherwise they wouldn’t know to respond.

When called out, the main question responders are trying to answer is whether the individuals are an “immediate” physical threat to themselves or others, or are “gravely disabled.”

If those conditions are met, authorities can impose what’s known as a “5150” hold, under which an individual can be forcibly transferred to the emergency room, or an inpatient psychiatric facility, for up to 72 hours.

“We can stabilize them in the emergency room and collect a bit of history,” Behrendtsen explained.

In some cases, law enforcement and CARES work together, but sometimes they don’t.

If CARES does respond, oftentimes workers will contact the person’s therapist or psychiatrist for more information before determining how to handle the situation. CARES runs a 24/7 access line for people to call for assistance when contacting someone with a perceived mental health problem.

“The flow of conversation is bilateral,” said Behrendtsen, explaining that sometimes CARES will call authorities and other times authorities will call CARES.

“If the situation looks stable to them (authorities), they don’t call CARES,” he said. “If they think it will require hospitalization, that would be when they would call.”

Santa Barbara police Sgt. Riley Harwood said officers must determine the physical threat is legitimate and imminent before imposing the 5150, which draws its name from a section of the California Welfare and Institutions Code.

“We are assessing someone if they are on the verge of committing suicide or on the verge of harming someone else, or someone who has deteriorated to the point of they can’t take care of themselves or they are going to die,” Harwood said. “It’s an immediate thing. It’s not that they have had some sort of suicidal fantasy.”

For example, the person may be threatening to jump, or may be about to overdose or hurt someone else.

In 2013, the city of Santa Barbara had 3,497 “check the welfare” requests, Harwood said, and callers specifically identified 204 of those as mental-health situations. He said more of the 3,497 could be mental-health related, but were not specifically identified as that when officers were called in.

“It is not uncommon,” Harwood said, adding that all police officers get training on mental health cases while at the police academy, and additional, specialized training is available for officers on the beat.

“We deal with this all the time,” he said.

Standing outside his apartment on April 30, Rodger was able to convince authorities that he was not a threat to anyone. As a result, officers had no right to search his home, where he had stored a cache of weapons used in his attacks and that he later acknowledged in a lengthy diatribe he posted online just before embarking on his murderous spree.

“People who are mentally ill, emotionally disturbed, or people who are sick in anyway, they have the same rights to freedom as any individual in our society,” Harwood said. “When we go contact someone on a ‘check the welfare,’ unless they have committed a crime, they have no obligation to talk to us.”

Harwood said people are not even required to open the door.

“We can’t violate someone’s civil rights,” Harwood said. “We don’t have a right to search their belongings. We don’t have the right to seize firearms.”

Authorities do have the power to conduct an electronic background check to see if the person has weapons, but even then cannot take their weapons, unless they determine the person is a 5150 situation.

“There’s not a lot we can do unless a person consents to relinquishing their weapon to us,” Harwood said. “We just don’t walk away from these things, but we can’t just take away people’s property on a hunch.”

If CARES personnel do respond, and determine that the situation is not urgent, workers will follow up to make sure the person in question gets a call or has a follow up with their mental health professional. Had CARES been called with the Rodger case, workers could have followed up.

Behrendtsen said “you never know” that a problem might exist with some people because on the surface everything can appear fine.

“Our police force and our sheriff’s (deputies) who deal with community folks on a daily basis, in my opinion, are well situated to deal with people and determine their safety,” Behrendtsen said.

Dr. Edwin Feliciano, the former medical director for ADMHS, and now the director of Behavioral Health Services at UCSB Student Health, said he was impressed with the campus community’s quick response to the May 23 violence, holding a vigil within 24 hours and then a memorial service four days after the rampage.

“Did the system work?” he asked. “That is a difficult question to answer. In events like this, it is always a normal reaction for people to go back and say what system is at fault.”

Behrendtsen added that he feels “awful about this situation.” He hopes that if anything good can come out of it, it will be a willingness and acceptance to discuss mental-health issues more freely.

People with anemia or diabetes don’t have any stigma attached to their conditions, he said, yet those with mental illness do.

“Thirty-six percent of the world’s morbidity is attached to mental-health or substance-abuse issues,” Behrendtsen said. “About two-thirds of mental illness in general goes untreated because there is more demand than a supply in services.”

Treating mental health — and attempting to prevent tragedies stemming from mental problems — is always a work in progress.

“The useful part is that it informs what we do with this going forward,” Behrendtsen said. “We are always learning about ourselves and how to make our system better and how to provide better care and better access.”


» Crisis and Recovery Emergency Services (CARES) offers a 24-hour, toll-free access line at 1.888.868.1649.

— Joshua Molina is a reporter for the Mission & State in-depth journalism project. Contact him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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