Before he called the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department to his 50th Avenue apartment for a tenant dispute that ended with his death Tuesday, Giat Van Truong had been arrested on a mental-health hold several times in his life, according to authorities.
He had been violent with deputies before and, according to his brother, sometimes didn't take his medication for schizophrenia.
The sheriff's sergeant who encountered the 35-year-old man Tuesday didn't know any of this, said sheriff's Sgt. Tim Curran. Truong abruptly punched the sergeant, did not respond to pepper spray, and then used the sergeant's baton to beat him, according to the Sheriff's Department's version of events. Six minutes into the confrontation, the sergeant shot Truong multiple times, killing him.
Could this incident – and others like it – have been prevented? Maybe, some officials said, given Truong's history.
"If something had been done to intervene with the mental health (issue), maybe this last contact that resulted in this wouldn't have happened," said sheriff's Sgt. Matt Reali, who has advocated for more cooperation between mental health professionals and law enforcement.
Tuesday's shooting was the third high-profile case in two years in which law enforcement officers in the Sacramento region have killed someone acting aggressively and exhibiting signs of mental illness during a confrontation.
The three deaths – those of Truong, 23-year-old Joseph Han in Folsom and 44-year-old Ricardo Manuel Abrahams in Woodland – highlight a long-standing debate about how law enforcement should deal with the mentally ill, and the tragedy that can occur when meetings of the two become explosive.
The conversation began locally about a decade ago, when Sacramento police, sheriff's deputies and mental health workers teamed up to address mental illness within the homeless population – an effort that eventually ended when funding dried up.
A more expansive effort, however, gained traction in 2005, as officials studied the possibility of using funds from the state's Mental Health Services Act to pair mental health officials with street cops in a collaborative effort to get people the help they need.
Need for response team
The idea of the so-called psychiatric emergency response teams, or PERTs, was widely embraced by law enforcement and county officials, but never funded.
Cases like Truong's show the need exists, Reali said.
He speculated that had the response teams been implemented, earlier intervention for Truong might have changed Tuesday's outcome.
"Certainly (someone like Truong) would be on the PERT team's radar," Reali said. "That would be the target group – mentally ill individuals who are producing calls for service."
While most interactions are solved peacefully, law enforcement comes into contact daily with people showing signs of mental illness. In 2008, the Sheriff's Department responded to more than 1,700 calls involving someone known to be mentally ill or behaving that way, Curran said.
According to the state commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, officers must undergo six hours of training focused solely on working with the mentally ill. Training includes "de-escalation" tactics and tips on how to communicate without triggering an outburst.
Sheriff John McGinness, who advocated for a psychiatric emergency response team, said his department requires 13 hours of such training in its academy, and that deputies receive refresher courses every other year.
Other agencies have gone further. More than two dozen counties in the state have crisis intervention teams, said Mark Gale, a board member of California's division of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and chairman of the organization's criminal justice committee.
Gale describes crisis intervention teams as the "gold standard of police training in terms of dealing with the mentally ill" – it involves 40 hours of intensive training.
No agency in Sacramento County does such training, but McGinness said the law enforcement community of late has ramped up awareness of mental health issues. "We have, as a profession, accepted very sincerely the benefit and the need to recognize symptoms of mental health issues and treat people in a manner that's most likely to produce a positive outcome," he said. "But I hasten to add, you cannot guarantee that."
Use of force
No amount of training can guarantee a peaceful outcome in every confrontation between an officer and someone who's mentally ill.
Officers are sometimes unfairly put in a tough position by a society that doesn't do enough for mentally ill people before they reach their breaking point, said Reali, the sheriff's sergeant. "It's a disservice to law enforcement and it's a disservice to the mentally ill individual to rely strictly on a cop to be the first responder to a mentally ill person in crisis."
"He's absolutely right," said Gale, the advocate. "At some point, the police get called. So that's why the jails and prisons become de facto psychiatric institutions."
Gale said blame lies with a broken mental health system that's underfunded and overburdened. He said he understands local governments are hurting financially, but said officials can take smaller steps – like creating PERT or CIT programs – by partnering with neighboring agencies and streamlining spending.
"It will save lives, it will save money, it will save lawsuits, and people will stop getting hurt," he said. "You don't have a choice. You have to do these things."
Reali said it's impossible to know for sure whether a local PERT team could have helped Truong – but he's confident one could help others like Truong from meeting the same end. "I can tell you there are a lot of other people out there whose psychosis is getting worse," he said. "It will happen again."