by Kimberly Rivers
kimberly@vcreporter.com

Within two minutes of police officers arriving at the scene at about 1 a.m. on Oct. 4, 2020, in Camarillo, Austin Manzano, 24, had been shot. As he told the 911 operator, that is exactly what he wanted to happen. Manzano said he wanted to end it all, and that he had a loaded gun and would start shooting people. Manzano died at the hospital two weeks later. The gun Manzano was holding and pointed at police officers was fake. Both officers involved at the scene were certified in crisis intervention techniques. 

Before 6 a.m. on July 5, 2019, calls began coming in about a man walking erratically in traffic in the area between Casitas Springs and Oak View on Highway 33. One witness described his actions as “wanting to commit suicide by my car.” A second witness said the man “was looking for someone to kill him.” When deputies arrived, Joshua Ortiz, 21, didn’t have a shirt on. When one deputy parked his car, Ortiz approached and then attacked the officer as he was exiting his vehicle. The officer could not unholster his taser, and was put in a choke hold by Ortiz, who threw the officer to the ground and began beating him. The officer was able to unholster his gun and shot Ortiz in the chest. Ortiz was pronounced dead at 6:27 a.m at the scene by paramedics. An autopsy did not find any drugs in Ortiz’s system, and his alcohol blood level was .03%, well below the legal limit for driving.  Ortiz was homeless in 2018-19 and had been in jail most of 2019. His family members reported that he had mental illness and believed he was Jesus Christ. 

Joshua Ortiz attacks Officer Timothy Putzel after Ortiz was running through highway traffic in Oak View on July 5, 2021. From footage captured by vehicle camera and included in Ventura County District Attorney’s report.

According to the Ventura County District Attorney’s report on Ortiz’s death, he was recently in custody in the Ventura County Jail and underwent a mental health assessment after he was seen talking to himself. That report stated he had “paranoid ideation” and “altered thought processes.” On June 27, 2019 it was recommended that he enter an outpatient medical program and was released on July 4, the day before he was shot and killed. 

Officer Timothy Putzel (left) and Deputy Timothy Urton administer first aid to Joshua Ortiz, moments after he was shot by Putzel in Oak View on July 5, 2019. Photo by Richard Hooper, a local resident who witnessed the incident.

These two tragic incidents altered the lives of those killed, their families and the officers involved. 

Law enforcement officials are keenly aware of the scrutiny they are under when it comes to shooting deaths. All departments in Ventura County participate in the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) program. About 90% of law enforcement officers in the county have completed the training, which focuses on de-escalation and diverting individuals with mental illness away from the criminal justice system. And yet, according to some advocates for the mentally ill, the county seems more apt to put people in jail, further criminalizing the mentally ill rather than working to ensure they get proper evaluations and treatment. 

“Victims of our own success”

“In a way we become victims of our own success,” said Mark Stadler, CIT program administrator, who estimates that law enforcement officers spend about a quarter of every day dealing with mental health-related incidents. “A lot of the time we are the default crisis team. We are busy all the time and of course have our own staffing issues. We’re responding to stuff everyday.” 

Stadler spent decades as a police officer before coming back after retirement to oversee the CIT program, which is run out of the Camarillo office of the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office, overseen by Captain Shane Matthews. He explained that the program is unique in the state in that every law enforcement agency in the county is part of the CIT, creating a unified approach to incidents involving individuals with mental health-related issues that bring them in contact with law enforcement. 

Stadler said the program focuses on teaching responders the “signs and symptoms of mental illness” as and about the available resources. The training includes role playing and use of force options. Mental health professionals do a lot of the teaching in an effort to ensure the mental health perspective is a focus. “Intervention techniques” for various scenarios, including “suicide by cop,” are covered. 

In response to the shooting death of Manzano last October in Camarillo, Stadler said, “Yes, that was a difficult circumstance . . . he was saying he has a gun and will start killing innocent people. There is no way we can’t send people to that call. We are not really in control [in that type of situation]. The suspect is dictating our response.” 

Stadler acknowledged the inquiries regarding less lethal approaches to disabling a person who is clearly in a mental health crisis while committing a crime. He pointed to elected officials, including President Joe Biden, suggesting that officers shoot someone in the leg or use tasers in these circumstances. “We’d like to taz them, but you have to get within about 20 feet. That is a major risk for an officer with an unstable person.” And despite what is depicted in television and film, shooting someone accurately in a leg or other less lethal spot on the body is challenging. Officers may miss. “We are responsible for every bullet we fire. If we shoot and miss,” perhaps hitting an innocent person, “we own that.” 

The public can request a CIT-trained officer when calling 911 when they believe a person is in the midst of a mental health crisis. Stadler says that information changes the whole mindset of everyone from the call-taker to the dispatcher to the officer being deployed. 

When calling 911 for an incident involving a person with mental illness, notify the call taker and request a CIT, or Crisis Intervention Team-trained officer. 

While officers don’t engage in any diagnosing or counseling, the CIT program is designed to “avoid sending them to jail…and finding the right place for each person. We have to evaluate each individual case,” said Stadler. 

“There is no room”

When a serious crime has occured, whether mental illness is a factor or not, Stadler said they have to book that person into jail. The file is given a “flag” indicating mental health services are needed, and the district attorney may consider mitigating factors and work with the defense and the court process to divert the person to treatment and care. 

The jail also has a program, the Therapeutic Inmate Management Unit (TIMU), providing psychiatric care to inmates. The program provides consistent treatment to inmates, so they see the same doctor on a regular basis, achieving consistency in treatment. In January the program reported a marked reduction of reports of suicidal ideation among the mentally ill inmate population. 

If no major crime has been committed, however, officers do have some “discretion,” and work to get the person help. Stadler describes it as a “comprehensive approach, from the street to the jail to court. The CIT is the glue that brings all those pieces together.”

But the lack of beds and facilities in the county impacts the effectiveness of the CIT program. 

Matthews emphasized that officers are aware of the lack of available beds. Frequently when a 5150 call (requesting a 72-hour hold for psychiatric evaluation) comes in the middle of the night, “there is no room at Hillmont [Psychiatric Center], no one from RISE [a county administered program], the officers end up sitting in the emergency room for one or more days.” The officers have to stay because the person is a potential “fight or flight risk” and hospitals aren’t equipped for that kind of “hands-on security” in the event the person acts out toward hospital staff or other patients. 

Matthews pointed to a projection reported by state experts in 2015 who are tracking the problem of mental illness in California, stating they expect roughly a doubling of the number of people needing psychiatric treatment every two to three years. “We need to get ahead of it, start addressing it,” he said, pointing to a new unit going in over the next year and a half at the county’s Todd Road Jail in Santa Paula. 

In 2018 the Ventura County Board of Supervisors accepted a bid from Sletten Construction to build at the jail a new psychiatric ward with 64 beds. The county will contribute $5.2 million and receive $55.1 million in state funding for the $61.2 million project. 

 “Inconsistent message”

The frustration is clearly apparent when Mary Haffner, a Ventura-based attorney and secretary on the Ventura County Behavioral Health Advisory Board (BHAB), noted that while county officials claim legal restrictions and lack of funding to treat the mentally ill, the county is able to find funding for new psychiatric beds at the county jail. 

She says the county sends an “inconsistent message,” on one hand saying “we have to be very careful when we involuntarily hospitalize someone . . . but it’s not a problem to take away their rights to commit them to a jail.” She stressed that no one involved wants to take away anyone’s rights, but that the menally ill have a right to treatment. 

“We have to be very careful when we involuntarily hospitalize someone, but we have to understand the reality of the illness,” she explained. “Many people do not believe they are sick. The county is abdicating it’s responsibility . . . They don’t want to involuntarily commit them to a therapeutic setting, but they will subject them to the involuntary commitment with jail.” According to Haffner,  in jail the mentally ill sometimes wait for months to be charged. “They can’t participate in their own defense, because they are not competent to stand trial. It’s insanity.” 

A look at the numbers

There are a total of 36 public inpatient psychiatric beds in Ventura County and, Haffner noted, few step-down options for those transitioning out of those beds. “There is no place for them to go.” 

The county recently added six chairs to a crisis stabilization unit that provides short term care and observation to a person in crisis. Even so, in a recent study released by the California Hospital Association (1), Ventura County should have a minimum of  427 adult inpatient acute care beds. 

County administrators and government officials are quick to point to various programs and partnerships they have to help people. They also say the law ties their hands in terms of forcing treatment and that adding beds is expensive. 

Right now, about 130 Ventura County residents are being cared for in facilities outside of the county, costing about $3.4 million dollars — a contract rate with those facilities that increases each year, and is covered in part by taxpayer dollars. The distance also strains families who now have to travel to visit patients. 

In the 12 months from July 1, 2019 to June 30, 2020, law enforcement agencies in Ventura County, including the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office and all cities with autonomous police departments, responded to 3,634 calls that were categorized as involving a person with a mental health issue. The information was provided in response to a Public Records Act (PRA) request from the Ventura County Reporter. 

But these numbers are likely to be low. 

“There is really no way to capture all the calls that involve persons who are in crisis,” said Jerry Thurston, a management analyst with the Ventura Police Department (VPD) responding to the PRA request. He explained that the VPD does not record a “call type of 5150,” referring to the California Penal Code section that applies to “the authority to place a person on a mental health hold for 72 hours when they are a danger to them self or others or incapacitated to the degree they are unable to care for them self.”

The department does have “a call type of MIDD – Mental Health, Developmentally Disabled person involved.  While some of these incidents involve individuals who are placed on 5150 holds, not all of the incidents require a hold.  Also, some incidents we respond to are not reported to us as MIDD involved, but could be anything from a check-the-wellbeing, a fight, a disturbance, juvenile problem, suspicious circumstances or a host of other call types.”   

During that 12-month period, VPD responded to 1,139 calls charted as an MIDD and 422 reported as a 5150.  The average length of time a VPD officer spent on those calls was about two hours (MIDD) and five hours and 42 mins (5150). Based on those averages, the VPD alone spent over 4,500 hours in one year on calls involving people with mental health issues.

Ventura Police Department records for mental health related incidents in response to a Public Records Act request from the Ventura County Reporter. MIDD refers to a VPD internal classification: Mental Health Developmentally Disabled.

Oxnard Police Department (OPD) reported 375 calls that resulted in a 5150 hold during that same period. Beth Ward, records and property manager for the OPD, explained that calls involving people with mental health issues can start as a “disturbing subject, suicidal subject, family dispute, behavioral issue, agency assist,” when they are called to help the fire department or Emergency Medical Services. She said not all of those calls become 5150 holds, so the number of incidents that involve mental health-related issues is higher.

“It is important to note that mental health situations are not criminal in nature,” said Ward via email to the VCReporter. 

“He’s not in a mental state to say ‘please help me’”

Nearly a dozen of those reported calls involving a person with mental illness can probably be attributed to a single person. It’s likely they are not the only person suffering from mental illness who has more than one encounter with law enforcement. 

“Jeffrey” (not his real name) is 25. When he was a teen, he lived with his parents in Thousand Oaks. He had his first psychotic break when he went away to college in 2015. He was a Division II athlete with a 3.8 grade point average. 

“His whole life changed,” said his mother, “Stephanie.” “He moved home, we got him all the help we could. He was stabilized and he went back to college. It was hard, he got a DUI, it wasn’t perfect but it was manageable.” 

In early 2020 he went off his medications. He was in a psychiatric ward for a short time “and then he never came home. He went to the streets.” 

As of March 2021 Jeffrey’s been homeless for a year, and between February 2020 and February 2021, he’s been arrested 11 times, mostly in Ventura County. Stephanie says she’s been told he got involved “with a rough group of people near Crooked Palm Road in Ventura. They basically took everything from him”: his car, his credit cards and ID, his phone and money. 

In order to be admitted to a homeless shelter, he needs to have a social worker. Without a phone, Jeffrey can’t call a social worker — a situation Stephanie sees as a vicious cycle. And, because her son is an adult, county officials say they are unable to give Stephanie information, even though she is his next of kin. 

“Every crisis team can clearly see he’s mentally ill and they directly tell us this makes no sense, the law has to change,” said Stephanie. “I know I’m not alone . . . We are one of hundreds of families. If someone can be arrested 11 times something is lacking. It is heart wrenching.” 

Stephanie said she’s learned how to browse police records of arrests to glean tidbits of information about her son’s whereabouts. Recently he was arrested for trespassing, another time for sleeping with a kitchen knife. “If I slept on the streets I might sleep with a knife too.”  

She’s been told he’s addicted to drugs. “It’s a form of self medication,” she says, not convinced he fits the typical frame of an addict. “Why can’t someone get help before we get to this point?”

Stephanie is frustrated with the Ventura County Public Defender who convinced her son to sign an agreement to pay an $800 fine for trespassing. Yes, it let him avoid jail time, but “he has no money to pay it.” And when he fails to pay, a warrant will be issued for his arrest. 

The pandemic has exacerbated the problems with an already flawed system. 

“Obviously due to COVID that’s been everyone’s excuse,” said Stephanie, who noted that many of the programs in the county “closed down their services for months.” County officials with Ventura County Behavioral Health (VCBH) told her he may be better off in jail, explaining that, “If he was in jail we can help him.” But due to COVID, mental health professionals who would normally do assessments weren’t allowed to see Jeffrey — either when he was in the hospital or jail. 

“Every time it’s a roadblock,” Stephanie continued. “It’s happened again and again and there’s no help.” 

Stephanie was near tears as she described the responses she received from behavioral health staff suggesting that Jeffrey call them or find resources online. 

“He’s not in a mental state to say ‘please help me’. He’s psychotic. He’s lost 100 pounds. He eats out of trash cans.”

She tried to give his health records with medical proof of his mental illness diagnosis to the court but said no one will talk with her. She can’t appear in court to help him. 

In the meantime, Jeffrey has been found in Thousand Oaks, Santa Barbara and Compton. Stephanie thinks he’s in the riverbottom sometimes, or on public buses. “Half the time he can’t sit still. I’ve been told being on the bus and walking around is soothing. He’s had trespassing arrests for being on railroads.” 

“It’s really hard,” she continued. “He hasn’t had a phone for over a year. It’s not like I can text him and say, ‘I love you kiddo.’” She said it’s been a while since he’s showed up, desperate and in need of a shower and clean clothes. 

In February 2020 he was arrested three times. “That is somewhat proof of life. Because of COVID it’s gotten to the point where I’ve started to have hope that maybe he’s in jail. Maybe he’s had dinner tonight. I never thought I’d be excited my son is in jail.” 

She has written letters to the Ventura County Board of Supervisors, spoken at a BHAB meeting and to VCBH officials. They say that he doesn’t meet the requirements of being either a danger to himself or others or being “gravely disabled.”  

Gravely disabled means that a person is unable to take care of themselves due to a diagnosable mental disorder. This includes not being able to feed or clothe themselves or seek adequate shelter. According to Haffner, “Because we lack the infrastructure to actually care for and treat people with serious mental illness, the bar is higher for the gravely disabled in Ventura County. Our county philosophy and leadership will err on the side of a higher bar than most counties.”

Stephanie was in disbelief over the assessment that Jeffrey was not gravely disabled. “He’ll be threatening to kill himself and an hour and a half later he walks away . . . ‘Sorry we can’t help you, he had a shirt on. He’s fine. He’s not gravely disabled.’ Do they have to find him freezing and half naked  and unable to move on the street before they could offer services?”

Stephanie said she did receive a phone call from Dr. John Schipper, division chief of adult services with VCBH. “He reprimanded me for speaking out in public. He said I’m jeopardizing my son’s future. I’m trying to save my son . . . Postpartum women get help. Those with depression can access help. [Jeffrey] is not going to make it if he doesn’t get help.” 

“Precisely what our role should be”

On Feb. 22 BHAB voted to submit a report (2) to the Ventura County Board of Supervisors that aims to address several barriers to providing proper treatment to severely mentally ill residents of Ventura County. 

Members of the Ventura County Behavioral Health Advisory Board at their meeting on Feb. 22, 2021. Screen capture of Zoom video.

The report approved last month is the second attempt by the BHAB to submit the document to the supervisors. The first time, in April 2020, Ventura County Counsel blocked it because the county’s attorneys said the report contained comments and recommendations related to legislation which was beyond the scope of BHAB. 

“We know that’s not true because we’ve done it before,” said Jerry Harris, BHAB chair, during the Feb. 22 meeting. He also cited provisions in the Ventura County Administrative Code that allow boards and commissions to comment on and make recommendations to the supervisors and it does not exclude commenting on legislative matters. 

The supervisors oversee the Ventura County Health Care Agency, which includes the Behavioral Health Department. 

“This is precisely what our role should be,” said Claudia Armann, BHAB member. 

The BHAB approved a motion that included a provision that if county counsel or any other entity in the county blocks or slows the submission of the report to the supervisors, it will be sent individually to them. 

The report is titled “LPS Reform Workgroup Report” and lays out eight main recommendations. LPS refers to  the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act of California, which was signed into law by Governor Ronald Reagan in 1967. The LPS Act aimed to end and prevent long-term involuntary commitments and ensure all people suffering from mental illness received timely evaluation and treatment. Judicial review of any involuntary holds is part of the act to safeguard individual rights. 

The state legislature has so far failed to update the LPS Act since it was approved, meaning the understanding about the nature of severe mental illness and modern treatments has greatly outpaced the laws designed to address it. 

The report approved by BHAB is modeled after a report issued in Los Angeles County that was sent to and adopted by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and includes recommendations to increase the number of inpatient beds and step-down services, and create innovative approaches to ensure emergency room beds are not taken up by psychiatric patients. Ventura County has also declined to adopt an aspect of the LPS Act that allows an individual to be held up to 30 days to be stabilized during an acute mental health crisis. Members of the BHAB say this longer hold period is desperately needed to ensure the county is providing the help people need. 

Harris said the goal of the report’s recommendations is to “reduce or eliminate suffering” of the mentally ill and their families. “It is the humanitarian response.”

For more information on the VCSO CIT program visit: www.venturacountycit.org.