Ventura County Sheriff’s Deputy Leon Mah, a nine-year veteran of the department, went on a police call on Wednesday, Dec. 16, made by Bryant Neil Duncan, 23, of Camarillo. Duncan had told the dispatcher that a crime was about to happen and that he wanted the police to kill him. And that’s exactly the scene Mah walked into, with a knife-wielding Duncan aggressively charging him in a matter of seconds. Because Duncan did not follow commands and, as can be seen on a bystander video, kept lunging toward the officer, the situation escalated quickly and Mah did what it appeared he had to do to defend himself. But not all of the general public seems to agree, that in what seemed like a clear case of mental illness, the officer should have used less-lethal force. Mark Stadler, Ventura County Sheriff’s Department Crisis Intervention Team program administrator, however, has dedicated nearly 15 years to helping officers better address such volatile situations with specialized training and to better assist those who are suffering from mental illness.
Stadler spoke to the VCReporter this week about officer-involved shootings, the challenge of helping an aggressive attacker and crisis intervention training.
Tell us about your work with the Sheriff’s Department as the Crisis Intervention Team program administrator. When did CIT become a part of law enforcement training? Why did you get involved with this training in particular?
I was hired as the Ventura County Law Enforcement Crisis Intervention Team program administrator in July 2015. I could have stayed at Ventura PD for a couple more years, but I learned of the opening in the CIT program and did not want to miss my chance to run the program I helped to start in 2001.
CIT in Ventura County is very unique in that we have a countywide collaboration. I’m not aware of any other county in the state or nation that has every law enforcement agency participating in CIT.
CIT was created in 1988 by the Memphis Police Department. The training program they created is known as the “Memphis Model.”
The CIT program has held 39 CIT academies since 2001 and trained 1,352 members of law enforcement. There are approximately 72 percent of all patrol officers, and 40 percent of all communication operators CIT trained. The current goal for Ventura County law enforcement is to train 100 percent of all law enforcement and communication operators.
The program is currently funded through June of 2017.
The sheriff’s deputy shooting a man armed with a knife on Wednesday, Dec. 16, has been a particularly hot topic, even a divisive topic. There seem to be two sides of the discussion: The officer used excessive force and should have shot the attacker in the legs or used a Taser or pepper spray. The other side supports the officer with his response in order to defend himself. What is right and/or wrong with these arguments?
I cannot speak on the recent shooting, but in my experience with law enforcement training, an officer working alone and confronted by an armed aggressing suspect would be taking too great of a risk to themselves or the public to attempt to use a less than lethal method of force to stop an armed attacker. Less-than-lethal weapons are not consistently reliable, especially on a moving target. If the less-than-lethal weapon fails, which is common, because when your life is in jeopardy your adrenaline is surging, then you factor that you and the subject are moving, taking accurate shots are not easy even with the amount of regular training that law enforcement completes. If the less-than-lethal option fails and you’re alone, the armed attacker can hurt or kill the officer.
Was that deputy CIT-trained? What is the difference between how officers had been trained without CIT and now with?
Yes, the deputy was CIT-trained in 2013.
The first thing we tell officers is that CIT is just one of the tools on their tool belt. Every type of law enforcement training on the use of force and de-escalation they receive is important and necessary in giving law enforcement options to respond to ever-changing situations and environments.
The main concept taught in CIT is to consider “time and space.” Allowing time to pass and slow things down while using a calm tone of voice helps the person in crisis to be assured that you are there to help them, not hurt them. Space relates to officer safety and the safety of the person in crisis. Give yourself as the officer a safe amount of distance for your protection while maintaining a degree of containment, Also, avoid closing in too quickly or cornering the person in crisis, potentially provoking a confrontation. All people, when in a crisis situation, will react based upon their human instincts of “fight or flight.”
The other difference is, CIT-trained officers are better able to recognize the type of mental illness, developmental disability or medical condition. The CIT-trained officer also knows what the best resources are for that person based upon their needs. This allows CIT-trained officers to be more effective by recognizing the issue faster and connecting that person with the most effective resource, which in turn helps to avoid unnecessary incarcerations.
What is the general frequency of suicide by cop? How many times has that happened in Ventura County since you have been on the force?
I don’t have the exact numbers, but it happens on a regular basis. I am an instructor at the Basic Academy in Ventura County and I teach a class on officer-involved shootings. I have been a presenter and facilitator for every graduating class since 1988.
I think we are seeing the highest amount of backlash against law enforcement and police brutality in this country right now. When you do your CIT training, how does this volatility affect officers?
I believe our students keep things in perspective and understand that although national news affects the perception of law enforcement, Ventura County law enforcement has been way ahead of the national trends by implementing CIT training 14 years ago. Many incidents called brutality or police misconduct can be avoided by better training and supervision of law enforcement officers. However, one thing that will never change due to the nature of law enforcement and how circumstances can change in an instant without warning, there are going to be violent encounters.
While there have been plenty of stories about what appears to be egregious excessive force, it also seems that people forget that officers are also people and not robots. Do you think the general public has set expectations too high, as if officers can be properly trained not to feel emotional in a chaotic situation, or that they should be able to hit a moving target that’s threatening their lives with precise accuracy?
From my own personal experience having been involved in a shooting, you cannot imagine how fast these incidents happen. It’s always easier to watch videos or re-enactments the next day and talk about how you would have shot the person in the arm or leg or maybe even just shoot the weapon out of their hand. When your life is in jeopardy, your adrenaline is surging; then you factor that you and the subject are moving, taking these spectacularly accurate shots are not realistic. Also consider the possibility that if you aim at a small target to avoid killing someone and miss, you are putting everyone behind that person in danger.
What’s does a person, generally speaking, and an officer, in particular, experience emotionally and physically in that situation?
When your life is threatened all your senses are heightened and your heart is racing, even if you appear calm on the exterior. After a major incident it takes hours to de-stress. From my own experience, you think about the incident, nonstop second-guessing yourself, fearing for your future, your career, trying to think if there was anything else you could have done differently. After a couple of weeks you get to the point where you only think about it a couple times a day. Then, in time, it may be once a week, once a month. Then there are the triggers that bring you back to that moment. It has been 28 years since my officer-involved shooting but there are still visual, auditory and olfactory triggers that take me back to that night, Nov. 9, 1987.
What happened then?
I was working as a patrol officer for the Santa Barbara Police Department when I was dispatched to a report of an assault with a deadly weapon in progress at a resident hotel in the downtown area. When I arrived I learned that the suspect was swinging a machete and had already severely injured the hotel manager and one of the tenants. A senior officer arrived on scene before me and asked the suspect to drop the machete. It was decided that the senior officer would attempt to spray mace on the suspect to get him to drop the machete. As soon as the mace contacted the suspect he charged toward me swinging the machete. I shot and killed him. In addition to taking a life, my only regret that night was that I didn’t take a turn trying to talk to him and see if I could have talked him out of killing himself.
How can an officer tell the difference between someone who is mentally ill and someone who is high on drugs? Also, what’s the difference in trying to handle either or?
Differentiating can be extremely difficult, especially today when it is more and more common to encounter a person suffering from a methamphetamine-induced psychosis.
However, the good news is that the communication techniques and principles taught in the CIT program are universal. So for me, it doesn’t matter if the person is depressed, psychotic, developmentally disabled or in a temporary emotional crisis, because a CIT-trained officer will approach them slowly, using a calm voice while maintaining a safe distance, which will allow them to open up a channel of communication and greatly increase the odds of a nonconfrontational contact and allow them to direct the person in crisis to the help that they need.