Police Add Social Worker in Van Nuys : Experiment Seeks to Intercept Dangerous Mental Cases

Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles Police Department has begun an experimental program in the San Fernando Valley to determine whether a mental health expert can help police monitor behavior of emotionally disturbed people and reduce the crimes they commit.

In the one-year program, which may be expanded to all Los Angeles police divisions if successful, a social worker went to work two weeks ago at the Van Nuys Division police station. Other social workers will be assigned to three other police divisions around the city in the next few months, according to Commander Jim Jones, who is overseeing the citywide experiment.

The theory of the project, police officials said, is that mentally disturbed people who have been arrested for minor violations could quickly be referred to a trained social worker rather being placed behind bars, saving police time and reducing the load on the criminal justice system.

Police will have the final say on whether the suspect should be jailed, but officers will first consider the social worker's recommendation, Capt. Arthur Sjoquist said.

"The problem with those people is that jail is not where they belong," Sjoquist said. "But in most cases we just don't have the time or expertise to do anything except arrest them and hope they don't do anything more serious the next time."

Theoretical Case

For example, Sjoquist said, if police receive a call about a man who is standing naked in the intersection of Vanowen Street and Van Nuys Boulevard directing traffic, officers usually have no alternative but to put him in jail.

The man would be booked for a low-grade misdemeanor such as disturbing the peace, spend a few days in jail and be released. In most cases, no one checks to determine the seriousness of his mental problems, Sjoquist said.

"Under this project, mental health people will be involved at a much earlier time to make sure these people don't slip through undetected," Sjoquist said.

The experiment was developed in response to last year's 49th Street Elementary School shooting, in which a deranged sniper killed two people, including a 10-year-old girl, before killing himself, Jones said.

Weeks before the shooting, police had received tips that the man had a gun in his apartment and was behaving strangely, although he had committed no crime. In such a case, a mental health practitioner could have gone to see the man and given police an assessment of whether he was a danger to others, or whether he should receive treatment, said Allan Rawland, director of planning and development for the county's Department of Mental Health.

"This new program we've got out in Van Nuys is really designed to let us and the police get in closer touch with the community so we can identify and possibly treat people who seem to have a pattern of bizarre behavior," Rawland said. "It's just a way of responding quicker and hopefully preventing dangerous situations."

In the next few months, social workers will also be placed at the LAPD's Rampart Division in Echo Park, Southeast Division in the Watts area and Pacific Division in Venice, Jones said.

Role of Monitor

Sjoquist said that, in the Van Nuys part of the experiment, county social worker Jean Thomason will try to become familiar with people in the area who have a history of emotional problems including behavior that may be criminal. If any of the them is arrested, he said, Thomason will in most cases be one of the first to question the suspect.

She also will maintain contact with the people to make sure "they're not going to fly off the handle at some point down the line," Sjoquist said. Thomason and the other county mental health officials have the power to commit a person for observation for up to 72 hours.

Officials of the police and mental health departments are still in the process of drawing up criteria to determine when mentally disturbed persons should be diverted to counseling or face prosecution for their crimes.

Until those standards are made final, Thomason is spending most of her time learning police procedures. But she also has spoken to several people who normally would have been dismissed as pests by police.

In one case, she was asked to talk to a woman who repeatedly callrd a nearby fire station to complain of a strong smell of gas near her home. But firefighters never could detect any unusual smell and concluded the woman was imagining the problem.

When a man entered the police station and seemed very nervous--he said he was worried about a loan he made to a friend--he wound up talking with Thomason, who referred him to a county psychologist.

Changes Expected

But the social worker said she does not expect those to be typical cases once the guidelines are in place.

"I'm sure it will pick up soon, because it's amazing to me the kind of bizarre cases that come to the front desk," Thomason said. "Right now we're just crawling along and working some of the kinks out. I'll mainly focus on the people who have committed victimless misdemeanors and try to make sure they are not capable of doing something serious," she said. "If it seems they could be dangerous, I could commit them for up to 72 hours to see how we and the police want to handle the situation."

Jones said the Van Nuys station was picked as the Valley's site of the experiment because it received about 5,000 calls last year from people reporting crimes that stemmed from possible mental problems, the most of any of the Valley's five police divisions.

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