Mental health teams busy responding to police situations

Mental health teams busy responding to police situations »Play Video
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — An Oildale family questions officers' response that led to a fatal shooting, saying their relative who died suffered from mental illness. Law officers in Kern County have special programs to deal with these incidents, but that response has its limitations.

Eyewitness News checked into the Mobile Evaluation Teams that officers can call to situations and discovered this resource gets used a surprising number of times and could be put into action even more.

"Usually once they leave, they're generally going from call to call," Bill Walker said. He is the crisis services administrator for the Kern County Mental Health Department. Walker said the MET teams go to an average of 15 calls every day, and there's often another 15 or so they simply can't get to.

There one or two units available in the metro Bakersfield area seven days a week from 8:00 a.m. till midnight, according to Walker. They also have a team that works in east Kern County and covering the outlying areas. Each unit has a mental health professional who has additional training to work with law enforcement.

"MET will actually come and meet with law enforcement and then actually they'll perform an evaluation," Walker explained. The mental health worker can take an individual in for mental health help, either voluntarily or involuntarily. The MET worker could also decide the person can be "left in the community," Walker said. Or, law enforcement could take over, and the individual could be taken into custody.

On Wednesday night Adam Horttor, 32, was contacted by a sheriff's deputy on North Chester. Officers were checking reports of cars being broken into, and Horttor matched the description. But he refused to stop, fought with the deputy, wrestled the officer to the ground and grabbed his baton, according to the sheriff's department.

A second deputy arrived and use a Taser on Horttor, but that had no effect, according to officers.

"Horttor then raised the baton toward Deputy (Mike) Blue, as Deputy Blue stood up. Deputy Blue then fired several rounds from his firearm striking Horttor," reads a department statement. The suspect's family says the situation was mishandled.

"He wasn't a violent person," sister Jacqueline Edington told Eyewitness news on Thursday. "He could be violent toward himself, but they should have put him in (the mental unit at Kern Medical Center)."

The family said Horrtor had struggled with mental illness for a number of years. And he had been arrested earlier in the week, taken to jail, but then released. According to the sheriff's department, all suspects arrested are taken into custody and given a screening. Based on their answers to a number of questions, they are wither referred to medical staff at the jail or mental health.

Horrtor was released, according to him family. The relatives said they had hoped he would be kept in custody, and given some mental health help.

Could the resources of a MET unit be used in the incident Wednesday night?

"If a situation literally exploded, the officer may not have an opportunity to call for a MET unit," Walker said. He said an officer must first get control of the situation. Only then is there time to call for MET, and then it also takes time for a unit to arrive.

Sheriff's spokesman Ray Pruitt agreed with that. He said the first priority is get the scene secured for the safety of the individual and the public.

On Wednesday, officers contacted Horttor, there was the fight, the other deputy fired the Taser, and then the shots were fired. Pruitt told Eyewitness News all of that happened in one minute.

Horttor's family is distraught. Father Terry Horttor said his son had been arrested six times for misdemeanors, they think he should have been pulled into a psychiatric evaluation.

Walker can empathize with that. "Sometimes the individual is hard to get into care," he said. "Or the systems don't always have the right match of services."

"I don't know any of the details of this particular event," Walker added. "But my heart goes out to both sides."

Walker said the MET units are a valuable resource, they've been in place for about 12 years. He said they've managed to keep the staff at the same level, but the need gets bigger.

"The need is actually increasing, while the staff is staying about the same or decreasing a little bit," he said. Walker adds the population is going up, and so are the stressors like the bad economy.

"I know that the sheriff's department, the police department, and the MET teams have been working very hard to try to reduce or eliminate bad outcomes in the community," Walker said. "And get people the help they need."