Santa Clara County to search for alternatives to using tear gas, pepper spray in jails on mentally ill inmates – The Mercury News

Following a recent report condoning the use of tear gas and pepper spray in Santa Clara County jails, the Board of Supervisors wants to explore alternatives to chemical agents when trying to get mentally ill inmates to comply.

The report, which was published several months ago by the county’s Office of Correction and Law Enforcement Monitoring, reviewed — and signed off on — 17 situations where tear gas or pepper spray was used in the county jails. In 14 of the cases, deputies were responding to request from medical or mental health personnel to extract an inmate from their cell. Four of those 14 cases were to administer court-ordered medication, three were to move the inmates to the acute psychiatric unit and another three were to impose suicide precautions.

But the use of tear gas and pepper spray appeared to trouble the supervisors, who on Tuesday afternoon, unanimously voted to direct the law enforcement oversight group that wrote the report to work with the Sheriff’s Office in developing alternatives to chemical agents in acute psychiatric situations.

“If you look at a mental health institution, would that mental health institution be using the same type of chemicals or do they have other means to deal with these issues?” Supervisor Otto Lee said. “Just because there’s a jail setting being used for other purposes, having those same tools being used against those who have mental illnesses, in this case I find that to be extremely disturbing.”

Assistant Sheriff David Sepulveda told supervisors that they used tear gas or pepper spray in the jails to avoid physically restraining an individual.

“Staff would have to go in and perform a physical extraction, physically restraining them which leads to somebody getting hurt whether it’s the individual or the staff,” he said.

Sheriff Bob Johnson, who was elected last year after previous Sheriff Laurie Smith’s more than two decade tenure, said the department was open to the recommendations detailed in the report, which included raising the rank of the officer approving the use of the chemical agent and prohibiting its use on inmates with respiratory issues.

“I know this is an important issue and there are concerns about using this type of equipment in our community and in our correctional facilities,” he said. “There has to be training and there has to be strict protocols and oversight, and the beauty of this county is we have those things in place to ensure we are using these things thoughtfully, effectively and compassionately.”

Board President Supervisor Susan Ellenberg, who has led the county’s push to look at alternatives to incarceration, emphasized the need to continue that work particularly for individuals with mental illnesses.

“I want us to remain clear of the overarching fact that any and all answers that we come to will be wrong answers when these individuals do not belong in a correctional setting in the first place,” she said.

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