The video taken by a passing motorist is chilling. On the shoulder of the Santa Monica Freeway, a California Highway Patrol officer sworn to protect and defend us sits astride a 51-year-old mentally ill woman, and pummels her.
The incident, which occurred last week, is yet another illustration of California’s flawed system for caring for severely mentally ill people. It points to the lack of training given to law enforcement officers to handle such people, even though officers all too often are society’s front-line mental health care providers.
It’s not known what transpired before the camera flipped on. Some witnesses say the woman struck the officer, sparking his anger. Whatever the provocation, the officer’s reaction was more reminiscent of a mixed martial arts brawl than by-the-book law enforcement work.
The officer is relatively new to the force, apparently having been on the job less than two years. His name hasn’t been released, and he has been assigned to desk duty for the time being. The investigation will take weeks.
Rather than wait for the investigation to be completed, CHP Commissioner Joe Farrow, the head of the agency, has become directly engaged in the matter. That is appropriate and the right call.
Farrow went to Los Angeles on Tuesday where he met with activists and had a press conference, telling reporters, “We have a significant issue on our hands that we have to deal with.”
The woman, identified as Marlene Pinnock, has had several run-ins with police. She is seen walking barefoot along the freeway when the officer catches her. If allowed to continue, she undoubtedly would have been in extreme danger from traffic and quite possibly endangered the motorists who might have hit her.
Apparently trying to stop her from walking into traffic, the officer muscles her to the ground. All that might be appropriate, except then he hits her repeatedly with his gloved right fist.
The incident recalls the horrible night in 2011 when Fullerton police officers confronted a homeless mentally ill man, Kelly Thomas, and beat him to death. That, too, was captured on video.
Marlene Pinnock is alive, perhaps because of the officer’s intervention. Still, she was injured in the confrontation at the hands of the officer who stopped her from wandering into traffic.
Still, the issues remain. The severely mentally ill often are left to wander among us, hanging out in front of our public buildings, self-medicating in our parks.
Society must do more to help these people. Unfortunately, our police will be required to respond to their needs most frequently. And they need better training in how to handle them – for the protection of the mentally ill and their own well-being.