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Courage, compassion and mental illness

Submitted by the Arlt family

In October and November of 2016 two young men who were in the midst of mental health crises were shot to death by law enforcement officers in Santa Cruz County.

This shocked and grieved our community.

After reading an April 24 article in the Sentinel about SCPD officers de-escalating a difficult mental health crisis incident, we felt in our hearts that real change had come.

We, the family of Sean Arlt who was shot to death in 2016, want to extend our deep appreciation for the increased awareness, new trainings and de-escalation practices that have been developed and utilized under the leadership of SCPD Chief Andy Mills and Sheriff Jim Hart over the past three and a half years.

Thank you to our Santa Cruz law enforcement officers for accepting the risk and for using de-escalation to prevent the use of lethal force.

Since Sean’s death, law enforcement in Santa Cruz has done on-going training in de-escalation for all officers.

Carol Williamson, board president of Santa Cruz NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) advocated strongly for appropriate training for all law enforcement officers. The SC County Behavioral Health Department, with help from NAMI developed a 24-hour Crisis Intervention Training for law enforcement.

Yes, it can be scary, even traumatizing, being in the presence of someone who is struggling with a serious mental illness. Through training officers have gained understanding of what the experience for a person struggling with serious mental illness can be like. It is critical that training is on-going for all officers.

Training has shown to be effective in providing officers with the knowledge, tools, skills and options to defuse critical incidents and reduce injuries. These new practices have saved individuals, officers, their families and friends from experiencing the life changing trauma that follows when someone is killed.

SCPD officers have de-escalated three, potentially deadly, incidents in the past year.

Currently more than 60 million Americans are diagnosed with some kind of mental illness. The majority of 911 calls received by the SCPD and the Sheriff’s Office are mental health crisis-related. Individuals and families in our community struggle daily to cope with mental health crises and the challenges of getting support, timely and proper diagnosis and treatment.

We know that it is vitally important that mental health issues come to be treated in the same light with which we view physical health issues such as: heart disease, cancer, or a novel virus. This shift in perception will go a long way in removing the stigma, shame and the fear so often surrounding mental illness. It will lead to more positive outcomes by increasing understanding, compassion and effective treatment options.

As Sean Arlt wrote: “As we invest our energy and faith in love we expand its reaches and influence. Please take a moment to ask yourself this question: If all humankind invested its energy into love and sought resolution and transformation through its guidance, what would result?”

Our community is blessed to have Carol Williamson and the staff at our local NAMI organization. Their ongoing work and dedication to raise awareness, offer services for individuals and families and to provide training with schools and with law enforcement is critical and invaluable. We are grateful to all who work directly with those struggling with this illness and also work to get funding for systemic change, they include: our mental health professionals, law enforcement officers, first responders, emergency room staff, social workers, legislators and others.

On a personal note, our family thanks Carol Williamson of NAMI, SCPD Chief Andy Mills, Pastor Dave of Peace United Church, and the staff at Bay View Elementary School for the support we have received during the past three and a half years.

The Arlt family.

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