LA NAMI Chapter Questions Death By Police: Warn Of Cutbacks To CIT Training.

Juan and Blanca Briceno created a shrine for their son Eric Briceno, who was killed by deputies in March during what they said was a mental health call.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

As Communities Shift Responsibility For Responding To Emergencies Away From Police, Is CIT Training For Law Enforcement At Risk?

(10-6-20) The Greater Los Angeles chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness has written a letter demanding answers about the death of a seriously mentally ill man at the hands of sheriff’s deputies. The letter also warns of what I fear is an alarming problem across our nation – the scaling back of robust Crisis Intervention Team training for law enforcement as localities shift responsibility away from police/deputies to other first responders.

Eric Briceno died in March after his mother Blanco Briceno, called sheriff’s deputies about her 39 year old son who was asleep in his bedroom when they arrived.

“We called them to come and help us, to get some help,” Briceno told the Los Angeles Times during an interview. “And instead, they came and killed him, brutally killed him.”

“Deputies ignored the parents’ plea to allow them to bring their son out of his room safely,” the NAMI letter notes. “Instead, (they) entered his bedroom…Mr. Briceno was pepper sprayed and shot with a Taser seven or eight times, according to the autopsy report.”

That autopsy wasn’t made public until late September, prompting NAMI’s Oct. 3rd  letter. The coroner’s office concluded that Briceno died of cardiopulmonary arrest, resulting from neck compression and restraint with a Taser. The death was ruled a homicide…”

“The only information available publicly at this time is the story in the Times,” the NAMI letter notes. “But if the truth is close to the depiction of the facts as portrayed in the article, deputies abandoned good practices and de-escalation protocols in favor of physical intervention and the use of force. NAMI Greater Los Angeles County will not ignore fatal use of force upon individuals living with serious mental illness by any law enforcement agency especially the level of force appears great.”

Scaled Back CIT Training

In addition to demanding answers about Briceno’s death, the letter notes that the sheriff’s department has scaled back its de-escalation training.

Reducing CIT training is a problem that was first brought to my attention by Ron Bruno, executive director of CIT International, and a fellow member of ISMICC, a congressionally appointed advisory panel about mental illness. Bruno warned me several weeks ago that cuts in law enforcement budgets and a shift in responsibility for responding to mental health calls was leading to less urgency and funding for CIT training.

While I believe moving responsibility from individuals in a mental health crisis away from the police to mental health providers is a good step when practicable (many such calls don’t require police involvement), reducing de-escalation training is dangerous.

“The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department has begun scaling back its commitment to robust CIT training this year,” Mark Gale, Criminal Justice Chair for Greater LA NAMI, and Britteny Weissman, CEO of Greater LA NAMI, wrote in the letter. “In past years, the number of patrol CIT classes has ranged between 16 and 25 annually. Only six have been scheduled for patrol deputies in 2020 and only four are planned for 2021. These are dramatic reductions in training!”

The letter notes that the decrease is happening at the same time the county has expanded the number of its MET (Mental Evaluation Team) teams. A MET team usually consists of a deputy and a licensed mental health clinician trained to de-escalate and avoid the use of force.

Such teams are not available for every mental health call, the NAMI letter notes. The deputy who arrives must interact with an individual in crisis. “The Briceno incident is important evidence that a substantive and increased commitment to CIT training and de-escalation skillsets for all deputies is necessary to support further culture change and reform. Clearly, we need more training, not less…”

In 2019, the agency’s 33 teams responded to more than half the 10,425 patrol calls involving mentally ill or cognitively impaired people in crises, a Sheriff’s Department report said.

“He didn’t die a natural death,” said Briceno’s father, Juan. “He died because of police brutality.”

Juan Briceno called deputies after his son struck him, according to the newspaper story describing the incident.

“Eric began showing symptoms of mental illness in high school and was diagnosed with mild schizophrenia, the family’s claim says. He self-medicated with street drugs and spent time in jail. Most recently, he was on probation and receiving treatment through the L.A. County Department of Mental Health.

On March 16…Eric had an altercation with his father and left the home as his parents called 911. Deputies arrived and told the parents to call them back when their son returned, which they did.

Eric Briceno — 6 feet tall and weighing nearly 300 pounds, records show — was in his room sleeping when deputies arrived, his mother said. She said she told deputies she would call him out of his bedroom because she didn’t want the deputies to go in. They went in anyway, she said, startling her son.

Blanca Briceno said the deputies began beating Eric without provocation, kneeling on his back and hitting him with a baton.

“They went, ‘Eric, Eric!’ So he got scared,” his mother said.“He wasn’t doing anything; he wasn’t aggressive, nothing.”

One deputy fired a Taser, striking him, and another discharged pepper spray in the room. Meanwhile, Eric cried out that he could not breathe, his mother (claims.)

Blanca Briceno said she pleaded for the deputies to stop. When she took out her phone to record, she said, a deputy took it away, telling her she couldn’t speak to anyone because they might convince her to change her story. She was pushed out of the room and into a cabinet…

Eric Briceno was punched, pepper-sprayed and shot with a Taser seven or eight times, the autopsy report said.

Deputies reported that before being transported to the hospital, Briceno had turned blue, according to the autopsy report. Medical examiners found methamphetamine in his system, which contributed to but was not the immediate cause of his death…

As Eric Briceno was taken to the hospital, deputies took his parents to the East L.A. station, where they were questioned by investigators; neither knew whether their son was still alive. After the interview, the Bricenos said, investigators returned and told them: We have some bad news — he didn’t make it…Eric Briceno was declared dead within eight minutes of arriving at the hospital.”

The Sheriff’s Department declined to comment, citing an ongoing investigation into the incident, the newspaper noted. Sheriff’s investigators have not yet presented a case to prosecutors, who will review the materials and decide whether deputies committed a crime, the district attorney’s office said.

The NAMI letter asked the Civilian Oversight Commission, which reviews complaints about law enforcement, to investigate Briceno’s death and why the sheriff’s department is reducing CIT training.

While NAMI supports greater use of non-police responses to mental health emergencies, such as MET teams, reducing CIT training for officers is dangerous, the letter notes. “One does not replace the other.”

I am grateful that Mark Gale, Brittney Weissman, and NAMI Greater Los Angeles are demanding more information about this death and warning about how defunding and separating the police from mental health calls can result in a decrease in CIT training. The letter should be a warning sign to other communities to insist that when responsibility is shifted, de-escalation training is not.

Letter from NAMI

10.3.20 Letter to LASD COC re Eric Briceno Death and CIT

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.