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It was a Sunday afternoon when Richard Poccia, a registered nurse out on leave, was planning to go the store to pick up some alcohol. It was Thanksgiving weekend, the high was 54 degrees and one of the neighbors was decorating for Christmas.
Alta Heights, the Napa neighborhood where Poccia lived, is bordered by the Napa River on the west and Tulocay Cemetery on the south. It’s known as a peaceful, suburban enclave. But it stopped being peaceful at about 3 p.m. on Nov. 28, 2010, and Poccia would never make it to the store or celebrate Christmas.
He was shot and killed by Napa Police Officer Nick Dalessi after allegedly becoming aggressive and pulling something out of his waistband. Dalessi thought it was a gun; Brad Baker, one of the other officers at the scene, correctly identified it as a knife and fired his Taser, striking Poccia. Dalessi’s shot struck Poccia in the head.
Although the Napa County District Attorney’s office ruled that the shooting was justifiable, the fatal confrontation raised serious questions about the ability of the city’s police to handle encounters with disturbed or mentally ill people.
There was ample reason to believe that Poccia was seriously troubled. The officers had arrived at his home on Meek Avenue for a welfare check after receiving reports that the 60-year-old man was in a mental health crisis, drinking heavily and threatening suicide. There was also reason for officers to exercise caution: Poccia had 13 firearms registered to him and, according to police reports, he was known to have fantasies about SWAT coming to his home and his confronting them.
Following an investigation, the DA’s office cleared the officers of any wrongdoing. Under existing law, “a homicide committed by a peace officer is justifiable when necessarily committed in arresting a person who has committed a felony and the person is fleeing or resisting such arrest.”
But the law, derided by critics as “vague,” is changing, and local police departments are beginning to change with it.
In Napa that change began with Poccia.
Following a $700,000 settlement with Poccia’s family, Napa police officers now undergo 32 hours of crisis training that includes de-escalation, role-playing, bias awareness and the use of less-than-lethal force – like beanbag rounds and Tasers. Since then, the state of California has mandated more extensive training for peace officers and narrowed the circumstances in which police may use deadly force.
“The CIT (crisis intervention) training must be working,” said Sara Tirado, site director of Innovations Community Center in Napa. At Innovations, a consumer-led mental health program, Tirado frequently sees people who have had run-ins with police, and despite what she says was a bad experience of her own with local officers, she sees signs of progress.
She points to the case of Dario Mundo Perez, who was subdued with beanbag projectiles instead of bullets after firing at officers in Napa’s Veterans Memorial Park on June 21, 2018. Three months earlier, officers and mental health workers spent 15 hours talking Perez off a highway overpass. In both incidents, the training paid off, she Tirado said.
Activists demand change
Between 2016 and 2018, 448 civilian deaths resulted from police use-of-force in California, according to state Department of Justice reports. In 2018, more than half of all reported use-of-force incidents which involved the discharge of a firearm involved individuals who were displaying signs of impairment or disability.
One of those incidents, the fatal shooting by Sacramento police of 22-year-old Stephon Clark, who had been holding a cellphone in his grandmother’s backyard in March 2018, provoked angry protests and demands for more accountability of police. The officers who shot Clark did not face charges.
That shooting, which followed a number of other high-profile shootings of young African-American men in California and other states, prompted the state Legislature to act.
Passed by the state Senate last July and signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in August, Assembly Bill 392 declares that “deadly force” is justifiable “only when necessary in defense of human life.” It also requires that an officer’s action leading up to a shooting – and whether or not de-escalation or less-lethal weapons were attempted first – be considered in the process of deciding whether a shooting is justified.
The bill states that “individuals with physical, mental health, developmental, or intellectual disabilities are significantly more likely to experience greater levels of physical force during police interactions, as their disability may affect their ability to understand or comply with commands from peace officers.”
Poccia’s shooting changed the Napa PD
When Poccia was killed, law enforcement agencies weren’t required to track and report these numbers, and peace officers in California were required to undergo only six hours of mental health training.
Poccia’s family didn’t think that was enough. The family sued the city in 2011, alleging that the officers “overreacted” and escalated the situation, according to the Napa Valley Register. “Poccia complied with the officers’ orders to the best of his abilities under these circumstances,” the lawsuit stated.
Witnesses told the newspaper in the days following that Poccia, who had been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, had seemed compliant. “It wasn’t like a gun battle, because I only heard one shot,” Mitch Frasier said. “He seemed to be complying with what the police officers were trying to do.”
The family’s attorney, Khaldoun Baghdadi, said the department’s willingness to train all officers was an essential element in the settlement with the city. Because Poccia was in crisis when he was killed, CIT might have made a difference that day, Baghdadi said.
“It is what prompted our department-wide CIT training,” said Sgt. Kris Jenny, a veteran of 19 years in law enforcement. “It kind of put us ahead of the curve.”
The settlement came in 2013. It would be another three years before additional training would be mandated throughout California with the signing of Senate Bills 11 and 29 on Jan. 1, 2016. The new laws more than doubled the amount of training to 15 hours for recruits and requires continuing education for officers already on duty.
“Unfortunately, just focusing on the training doesn’t really solve the issue,” said Prof. Amy C. Watson, Ph.D., of the Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The other part of CIT involves creating the rest of the “team.” That means bringing in community members and local resources.
“Hearing from people with lived experience and their families is really helpful for building empathy,” said Watson, who is also on the board of CIT International, a nonprofit that promotes the use of Crisis Intervention Team programs throughout the world. It’s especially important, she said, because having a mental illness already carries so much stigma.
“Oftentimes there’s this idea that people with mental illnesses are wildly more dangerous than everybody else – (but) most people with mental illnesses are not dangerous in the least,” Watson said. The stigma, however, may prevent these individuals from getting help sooner and may cause law enforcement officers to think they are going into a dangerous situation when they are simply dealing with a person in crisis who isn’t dangerous.
Watson said some evidence suggests that officers who have received CIT are more likely to try to link people to services and are less likely to make an arrest, but she offered no specific data.
Does de-escalation work?
Since Poccia’s death, Napa police have been involved in six fatal shootings, five of which were determined to be “reasonable and justifiable,” according to police records. The most recent occurred on Dec. 5, 2018, and is still under investigation.
The man killed last December, 27-year-old David Alexander Molina, had mental health issues well documented in Napa County’s court system. Between 2009 and 2018, he was arrested on suspicion of numerous probation violations, burglary, conspiracy, indecent exposure, assault with a deadly weapon, resisting arrest and battery on a police officer, among others. Often, Molina was deemed mentally unfit for trial due.
According to court documents, Molina was hit by a car when he was 7 years old. The accident damaged Molina’s right frontal brain lobe, affecting his ability to control his impulses and behavior. Just one year before his death, correctional counsel wrote that Molina couldn’t “complete daily tasks, like brushing his teeth, without prompting.”
Molina was in trouble again during the early hours of Dec. 5, 2018, when he allegedly got into an altercation with a couple he had been hanging out with earlier that day.
“He put hands on my girlfriend,” Matt Proctor told the 911 operator, noting that Molina was armed with a gun and riding a skateboard away from the scene. “He pushed her out of the way, nearly knocking me down – and I’m not small,” he added.
Just minutes after this call, Officer Christopher Simas, who was hired by the Napa PD in late 2016, contacted Molina on the side of the road at 1:51 a.m. “Hey, man, what’s your name?” he said as he approached Molina, as shown in his bodycam footage. Quickly the tone changed: “Keep your hands up … come here … put your hands up.”
“Fuck you, bro,” Molina responded. Simas continued to chase Molina, yelling at him to show his hands. Simas then asked if he had a gun and Molina said he didn’t. “Then put your hands up,” the officer said.
More words were exchanged while the officer tried to handcuff Molina. Shots rang out. The footage is dark and both men are still audible – it sounds like a struggle. More shots were fired. Simas was breathing heavily as he reported, “Shots fired, subject down.”
According to the Napa Police, Molina went for Simas’ rifle. If he had not been killed, he would have been arrested on suspicion of attempted murder of a peace officer and other charges. A loaded .38 special revolver was found at the crime scene, according to police.
Simas’ bodycam footage shows him going into a wooded area alone in order to keep Molina in sight and apprehend him. The footage shows that Molina was uncooperative, but not combative other than cursing and walking away.
De-escalation is one of the biggest components of CIT. Officers learn to assess the situation, try to figure out why the person is acting the way they are and, by asking questions and building rapport with them, calming them down. Then, depending on the situation, they either take the person to jail or connect them with resources.
Did Simas try to de-escalate the situation? If AB 392 becomes law, that’s something that would be considered. The Napa County District Attorney has not made a decision on this incident.
Expecting the best, preparing for the worst
In 2015, the California Highway Patrol formed its Mental Illness Response Program and several members of the unit recently explained how they teach new officers to respond to encounters with disturbed individuals.
They do this by using a simulator. There’s a large screen against the wall, some fake weapons holstered in a toolbelt and a nearby computer that controls it all.
Highway Patrol Officer and CIT Instructor Richard Anglesey and his colleagues designed the scenarios used in the simulator to mimic situations an officer might encounter. And as in a video game, there are numerous paths the cop could follow as the scenario progresses.
Anglesey demonstrated one of those scenarios as a reporter watched:
While on patrol, the officer notices a reckless driver swerving over the solid-double line and kicking up dirt on the side of the road, and pulls the vehicle over.
“Hi, I’m Officer Anglesey, but you can call me Richard,” he begins. “Do you know why I pulled you over?”
“Speeding? I’m sorry I’m in a rush. I’m on my way to work – I’m doing really good,” the driver responds.
He tells her that she was swerving and asks if she was using any drugs or alcohol. Irritated, the woman said she wasn’t. “OK, well, are you on any medication for anything? I noticed that you’re speaking quickly and were driving erratically.”
“Yea, I’m on medication, but I didn’t take it today.”
“OK, well, is there someone you can call to come pick you up and maybe take you to see your doctor? I can wait with you.”
In another scenario, someone reports a woman carrying a can of gasoline while walking down the street. She tells the acting officer – this reporter – that she “has it all planned out” and to leave her alone. I did what Anglesey instructed. I introduced myself, and told her that I was there to help and that I could connect her to resources.
She poured the gasoline over her body and took out a long lighter.
With Anglesey’s guidance, I backed away behind the pretend police car, putting some distance between me and the woman. I was panicking.
“Deb, you have me worried now. Please, I know you’re having a hard time, but your kids need you. I know I can make my mom sad sometimes, but, at the end of the day, she is my mom and I need her.”
She dropped the gas can and the lighter and fell to her knees.
This is the way Anglesey wants it done. Put space between yourself and the subject, buy some time and build rapport by talking with them, trying to find something to connect with them.
“Even if the only thing you can connect with them on is baseball, at least it’s something,” he said.
“We try to do everything we can to prevent a bad outcome, but, ultimately, we encourage, ‘Don’t rush in, take your time, slow it down,’” Anglesey said. “If they take the time away, that’s different, but you don’t be the one to run in there and escalate the situation.”
Although Napa police officers have been trained to use the simulator at the Napa County Sheriff’s Office and have previously used an older version of the CHP’s, the department does not have its own simulator and some officers say the scenarios aren’t all that helpful.
The interactions that happen with the simulator, Jenny said, can be clunky and detract from the overall objective. “A big part of CIT is reading the responses from the subject you’re talking to. The simulators don’t do very well at capturing those nuances.”
It’s difficult to see nuance in the footage from Simas’ bodycam. It does not show the two connecting about baseball or anything else, but maybe there was no time.
Shooting first and asking questions later is no longer acceptable, but tense encounters between cops and the mentally ill can still end very badly.
By Maria Sestito