A few weeks ago, I was at a gathering with a number of police officers. One of the police officers shared the call he had just come from. He had to respond to a 250-pound naked woman in the middle of a public park eating tacos.
This is not unusual conversation in cop circles by any means.
The picture he painted was not a pretty one. He recounted how, from a safe distance, he asked her why she had taken off all her clothes.
“It’s hot!” she responded.
On that she was absolutely correct. It was a very hot day.
It was, however, a public park and despite laws regarding freedom of expression it is still against the law to walk around naked — or, in this case, sit naked in the middle of the park and eat your tacos.
The situation is far more complex than one would think. You see, the woman was suffering from a mental illness — one of many such people who are walking the streets.
After some questioning, the officer determined the woman had just been released from a hospital where she had been placed on a mental health hold.
Now, at this point, the officer had to consider his options. He could place her on another mental health hold. This is a 72-hour civil detention for mental health evaluation. In California it’s called a 5150 hold after the section in the Welfare and Institutions Code.
You would think a naked woman in the park would meet the standards for a hold.
But the section is very specific as to the requirements that must be met.
First and foremost, does the person pose a danger to himself or herself? I don’t think being naked is a qualifier unless you can stretch the lack of sunscreen as an eminent threat.
Second, is the person a danger to others? While some would argue quite vigorously the mere sight was a danger I don’t know if a clinician would agree. That would fit more into the line of being offensive, but not dangerous.
Lastly, is the person gravely disabled? Is the person incapable of caring for himself or herself and therefore in eminent danger of caring for himself or herself? In this case, the woman was feeding herself and apparently had enough self-awareness to realize it was really hot and she just wanted to get comfortable.
The officer could also arrest her for indecent exposure. But even that has its limits. Section 314.1 of the California Penal Code requires the perpetrator be exposing himself or herself for the purpose of sexual gratification or offending another person. She just said, “It’s hot.” And it was.
There are municipal ordinances that could be enforced but they are just misdemeanors and would result, in most cases, in a citation.
Besides, arresting her would just add to the problem of mentally ill individuals filling up the jails.
Prisons house more mentally ill than any other facilities in the country. A recent report by the Treatment Advocacy Center estimates there are 10 times more mentally ill people in prisons than in state facilities.
It’s true: prisons are the largest mental health care providers in the country.
So now the patrol officer had to consider his other options. In some cities, you could call for a response from a Psychiatric Emergency and Response Team (PERT). That is a clinician and police officer teamed together in order to respond to calls for service related to mental health issues. If he is lucky, the team would be on duty and they would take it from there.
PERT teams respond to everything from threats of suicide to severe paranoid delusions — you know, the guy that has all the windows of his home covered with aluminum foil to keep the satellite signals from controlling his brain. Every city has them.
Everything I’ve heard from police officers has been positive about the use of PERT teams. But currently, the Anaheim PD is the only agency in Orange County with a full-time PERT team. Several agencies have part-time teams.
The biggest problem remains. Where do these patients end up being treated? You can have all the officers and clinicians in the field, but if there’s no place to house and treat these individuals, the revolving door continues.
The problem was significant enough that the Orange County Grand Jury published a report this year identifying the shortage of psychiatric beds as an issue. According to the report, Orange County falls below the average for psychiatric beds in the state.
I spoke with Officer Matt Beck from the Anaheim PD PERT team recently to ask him how things were going.
“It’s busy,” he said. “It’s very busy.”
The day I spoke with him, he and the clinician he is teamed with had placed five people on mental health holds.
I asked Officer Beck what his biggest concern was. It was simple.
“I worry that someone really dangerous will slip through the cracks,” he said.
The answer seems to be more beds to treat the most disturbed of these walking wounded. If we really addressed the need for more beds, what would be the outcome?
Well, for one thing, it would go a long way in addressing the issues related to homeless behavior. How many parks in the country are no longer used because families just don’t feel safe?
Beyond the quality-of-life issues there are real public safety concerns when dealing with mental health issues — for both the police and the public.
The reason Laura’s Law was passed in California was as a result of a tragic event. In 2001, 19-year-old Laura Wilcox was killed while working at a mental health clinic. The suspect killed two others as well. In this case, the suspect had refused treatment and there was no way to compel him to receive it.
Simply put, Laura’s Law allows for court-supervised treatment for individuals who are considered dangerous to themselves or others. In other words, the court makes you get help.
Laura’s law does have its detractors. Apparently there is a strong sentiment that the law is a violation of your civil rights because it compels you to receive treatment and to take your medications.
So you can see how the 250-pound naked woman in the park is not just a simple call.
In the case of the woman in the park, she was taken to a hospital for psychiatric evaluation. She then was released. When I checked with the agency involved I was told a week later officers had placed her on another mental health hold.
It really has become a revolving door that just keeps turning.
Joe is a retired Anaheim Police Department captain. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.