Two Different Orange Counties: Two Different Attitudes and Outcomes


If you don’t believe it is important to have police officers undergo special training that teaches them how to handle persons who are mentally ill, then you should look at incidents that happened in Florida and in California in counties that happen to share the same name.

Orlando Police Department Sgt. Tami Edwards in Florida was dispatched to investigate a telephone call about a distraught woman who was threatening to jump from the ledge of  the seventh floor in a parking garage. Sgt. Edwards, who had undergone Crisis Intervention Team training for police officers,  found the woman sitting with her legs dangling over the ledge. The woman was paranoid, delusional and was talking about how government agencies were spying on her.

Because of her CIT training, Sgt. Edwards recognized that the woman had a severe mental illness. The police officer talked to her in a calm voice and took time to listen to the woman’s delusions. She was able to get close to her. While Edwards was speaking, back up officers arrived. Without warning, the woman suddenly pushed herself from the ledge.

In a remarkable act of heroism, Sgt. Edwards grabbed the woman.

The police officer would have gone over the edge too, except that the back up officers grabbed Sgt. Edwards’ legs. The three officers managed to pull the woman to safety. She was taken to a mental health treatment facility.

Contrast that incident to one that happened last July when police officers in Fullerton, California, responded to a report that someone was breaking into cars parked at the city’s bus center. One of the officers immediately zeroed in on a 37 year-old homeless man with schizophrenia named Kelly Thomas who was well-known to area homeless workers. The officer ordered Thomas to show him the contents of his backpack and when Thomas balked, the officer began to threaten him. 

What happened next has outraged the Fullerton community. Officers repeatedly shot Thomas with Tasers, beat him with the butts of the tasers and flashlights, and slammed him to the ground. In a video that was taken by an onlooker, Thomas can be heard screaming in pain and begging for his life. He was completely unarmed and had not committed any crime, yet he was beaten so savagely by the police that he never regained consciousness and five days later, life support was removed and he died.

One incident happened in Orange County, Florida. The other in Orange County, California.

A few days ago in Orlando, Sgt. Edwards was chosen as the 2011 CIT OFFICER OF THE YEAR and honored by her peers at the Eleventh Annual Central Florida CIT awards breakfast. Meanwhile in Fullerton,  two police officers have been charged with second degree murder, involuntary manslaughter, and excessive use of  force and are now preparing for a hearing in March.

The Fullerton Police Department does not require CIT training. The Orange County Department of Corrections and Orlando Police Department have been recognized nationally for their CIT training programs.

I was invited to give the keynote speech at the CIT breakfast and I was impressed by the police chiefs, sheriffs, correctional officials, and city officials who came to honor Sgt. Edwards and several other CIT officers whose actions had avoided tragedies, such as what happened in Fullerton.

It was clear that CIT training is a priority in Central Florida.

Lt. Deanne Adams, who works for the Orange County Department of Corrections and is retiring this year, invited me to the breakfast.  She wasn’t aware that she was being recognized as Orange County’s CIT OFFICER of the DECADE! It was a well deserved honor. 

About a year ago, I got a call from distraught parents living in New England whose son had vanished.  They  thought he might have gone to one of the many theme parks in Orlando. He had stopped taking his medication and was psychotic. I called Lt. Adams and she contacted the parents. On her days off, she began looking for their missing son. Much to my shock, she found him and got him help.

That incident is only one that shows how Lt. Adams helped persons with mental illnesses and their families. There are dozens of other examples. She is an inspiration to those of us who know her. Although she was unaware that she was going to be honored, Lt. Adams explained in an off-the-cuff speech how her heart had been “touched” during the training classes that she attended when CIT was first introduced. It was through those classes, that she met persons with mental disorders and their families. “My heart was touched,” she told the audience. Those classes changed her entire outlook when it came to dealing with prisoners. They also changed her life.

Talking to Lt. Adams and other CIT award recipients in Orlando was inspiring. My son was shot twice by the Fairfax police with a Taser one night when he was psychotic. None of those officers had CIT training. If they had, I know my son would have been spared that awful experience.

I returned from Orlando to find a flurry of emails from Fullerton about the beating death there and the police officer’s upcoming hearing. (You can find lots of stories about Kelly Thomas and the officers on the Internet.) I was happy that my friend and long time California mental health advocate, Carla Jacobs, was quoted in one story talking about how police departments in Orange County, California, needed to implement more CIT training.

It is scandalous that the police, sheriff’s officers, and correctional officers in our country deal daily with more persons who have severe mental illnesses than most psychiatrists and our mental health system. But as long as that is our reality, we need to insist that law enforcement officers complete CIT training.

If the leaders in the Fullerton Police Department had done what those in Orange County, Florida, did eleven years ago, there’s a good chance that Kelly Thomas would be alive and two police officers would not be awaiting a hearing on felony charges.

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.


  1. Chrisa Hickey says

    My good friend, Julie Joyce, is a Chicago police officer who is not only trained as a CIT officer, she has trained hundreds of other officers on the Midwest. My husband Tom participates as part of the training, on a parent and patient panel that answers the officers questions. This week, Julie and I expand the training program and begin training DCFS social workers and agencies about childhood onset mental illness. We do this because stories like Kelly Thomas’ must never be repeated.

  2. This is a very important subject, and I would like to share your post with others – but not with that photo.  I realize it is factual, but I don’t see the point of posting such a horrific photo on this blog.  Your words already convey the horror;  I don’t need to see someone’s face beaten to a pulp.  What is the point of including it?  Feels sensationalist to me.

  3. Thanks for being on top of the stories that we need to hear to keep the momentum going in the mental health arena.

  4. Dear Wampoline
    Thank you for taking time to read my blog. I appreciate your interest and
    your support. You asked me why I posted the gruesome photograph of Kelly Thomas.I did it because I wanted readers
    to feel the same outrage, horror and anger that I felt when I saw it. This
    could have been my son. It could have been someone with a mental illness who you
    When I was a teenager, my local newspaper published Eddie Adams’ famous photograph
    of a Vietnamese police chief executing a Vietcong prisoner on the streets of
    Saigon by shooting him at point blank range in the head. I remember another Vietnam era photograph of a nine year old girl running naked in the streets after she was
    burned by napalm. These two images changed national opinion. 
    Sometimes words are not enough.We need mandatory CIT training in every police department, sheriff’s office
    and correctional institution in our country. The photo of Kelly Thomas shows us
    Thank you again for sharing your comments on my blog. I hope you will continue to do so.

  5. Dear Pete Earley – Thanks so much for responding to my comment.  I respect your journalistic decisions (obviously) and agree that people need to get on board with mandatory CIT training in every police department.  I have two mentally ill siblings and there are times when I am worried sick that something bad will happen to them if they have a run-in with the law, depending on where they are.

    However, I am still going to disagree about the use of that photo.  I well know the Vietnam photos you are referring to – but they are very different.  In both cases, as awful as the scene was, there was some humanity present.  I can remember that girl’s body and face.  In this photo posted above, what I see is not a person but a bloody pulp.  It is unrecognizable as a face.  This feels dehumanizing to me.  I know your point is to make people react, but honestly I feel more sickened than I feel compassion.  And as I mentioned in my other comment, I am less willing to put a link to this on Facebook, etc., because I don’t think it’s fair to people to have them stumble upon such a gruesome image when they think they are reading an article.

    I hear what you are saying about how images change national opinion.  But I believe there is a difference between what is in print media or even on television, and on the internet.  The internet is something far more intimate in my opinion, and harder to control (or anticipate) what you see as you scroll down the screen.  If I see a violent image in a magazine, for instance, I can ignore it or contain it somehow and focus on the text.  I cannot do that in the context of a blog which is scrolling down and not in a fixed spot.  So when an image like the one above pops up, it feels almost aggressive.   It doesn’t mean that I will not be outraged by abuses of power like the one you wrote about above – on the contrary, when I read about injustice, it pierces me to the core.  Your book CRAZY affected me in this way – and no images were necessary.

    Perhaps you are right, and the rest of the American public is so jaded that they need shocking images to react.  I just can’t shake the feeling that this one was posted for shock value – and wasn’t necessary, considering how shocking and horrible the story was already.

  6. Hippygramma says

    Dear Pete,
    I just finished your book Crazy and came to checkout your website.  I was required to read your book as part of my graduate program at Gonzaga University’s psychiatric nurse practitioner program.  I am so glad I read it; I learned a great deal.  I was a forensic nurse in the Idaho correctional system for nearly 7 years, and 3 years before that in the Oregon system.  It was apparent to me how backward Idaho is in care of the mentally ill inside prison walls.  Our maximum security prison is used a holding spot for all the “crazies” in the system.  We have many civil commits as well.  They are all locked away in cells and treated like criminals with very little concern for their true well being.  Oregon was far superior having a special management unit for those who are mentally ill and cannot live in general population. 

    When I came across this blog I wanted to write and let you know we finally got CIT training here in Idaho for most of the police departments in our state.  Sam Cochran was here in February of this year to conduct a train the trainer seminar to help better spread this training throughout Idaho.  I am so thankful for this as my daughter was diagnosed bipolar when she was 17.  I will never forget the night I had to call the police as she ran from the house half dressed threatening to kill herself by throwing herself in traffic on the boulevard near our home.  The office that came was awful; I remember him yelling, “I’m a police officer not a shrink, it’s my job to get her to the hospital anyway I can.”  I don’t think I was ever more terrified than I was that night.

    So I am so thankful for this training having come to Idaho in 2009 and for books like yours and many others who have been there for my family and I over the last 17 years as we learned how to care best for my daughter.  She is good now and mother of three but I still get scared anytime the stress in her life gets bad.  Anything can happen, and even though I understand it all and work with it everyday; it is not the same when it is your child.

    Deb Rush