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Editorial: BOS needs to expand crisis-support services to entire county

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“And if the cloud bursts thunder in your ear – you shout, and no one seems to hear” – “Brain Damage,” Pink Floyd

Rod Cameron died “fighting for his life.”

That’s how the 44-year-old Sonoma Valley resident’s passing was described in the obituary placed by his family in the April 10 edition of the Index-Tribune.

Cameron died March 28 during an encounter with Sonoma County Sheriff’s deputies, who had been called just before 10 p.m. that night to the Sonoma Oaks mobile home park in response to several reports from park residents that a man outside was, “yelling, breaking glass and slamming into things,” according to the Sheriff’s report.

Rod Cameron was out of control.

When the first two deputies arrived at the scene, the 300-plus-pound Cameron, who according to his family had long suffered from bipolar disorder, was naked and dripping with blood, having shattered several street lamps with his bare hands.

When he failed to comply with the officers’ commands, the situation escalated.

According to the report: One of the officers Tased him. Cameron fell to the ground and “barrel rolled” toward them. They Tased him again. He began beating his face and chest with his hands. Two more deputies arrived; Cameron was Tased a third time. Three more deputies arrived and he continued to resist. They cuffed him and tied restraints around his waist and ankles. Then Cameron went limp. When the deputies realized he’d stopped breathing they called paramedics and performed CPR. But it was too late.

The troubled father of three was pronounced dead that night at Sonoma Valley Hospital.

Cut to: 11 a.m., Mother’s Day, May 13. Ryan Pritel is a 20-year-old Sonoma youth whose mental health disorders last year lead to a month’s custody in a Los Angeles health clinic after being deemed a danger to himself and others.

While most Sonoma families were polishing off their Mom’s Day eggs Florentine, Ryan Pritel made an unscheduled appearance at his place of employment, the Jolly Washer car wash on Highway 12; he was acting strangely and flashed a weapon, said the car wash managers who called the police. Taking cover between vehicles in the car wash queue, Pritel exchanged fire with Sheriff’s deputies, shooting one officer with multiple pellets of non-fatal “snakeshot” before his gun jammed and he was arrested. The kid now faces an attempted murder charge and has a bail set at $1 million.

Violent, mentally disturbed clashes with the Sonoma police within weeks of each other weren’t the only things Cameron and Pritel had in common. They and their families had also both recently reached out to county authorities for mental-health help, and clearly didn’t receive what was needed.

The Sheriff’s department had evaluated Cameron’s mental health twice previously, but neither time had they judged him as meeting the “danger to self or danger to others” criteria necessary for involuntary health evaluation – a side effect of the 1967 Lanterman-Petris-Short Act, which forbade in California the institutionalizing of people suffering from mental illness against their will. The night Cameron died at the mobile home park he met the criteria in spades, but the deputies were not prepared, nor expecting, to make a mental-health evaluation on such an immense, bloodied, maniacal threat. (An investigation into the incident by the Santa Rosa Police Department is underway.)

Pritel’s tale stings as much. His father, Randy Pritel, had called county health services on May 12, the day before the car wash shooting, to get Ryan some sort of treatment to prevent him from doing harm. But, to his disappointment, he was told that county emergency support was not available in the Sonoma Valley – he’d have to bring him to Santa Rosa, or call the police.

Presented with demoralizing barriers, he did the obvious: nothing. Which led to painful snakeshot wounds for Deputy Mike Matelli and the life-altering incarceration of a desperate Sonoma son.

The tales of these two mental-health crises – well told in I-T reporter Christian Kallen’s May 22 story, “Sonoma Valley Mental Health Services Off the Map” – has led plenty of Valley residents to scratch their heads in wonder: Why aren’t county emergency mental health services available to the entire county?

According to multiple sources in the Department of Health Services the county’s emergency response Mobile Support Team only operates along the Highway 101 corridor, from Petaluma to Windsor. County officials say the funds aren’t currently available to staff a mobile-support team to serve the county outskirts, where mental-health services are often needed most.

County Supervisor Susan Gorin, whose 1st District is mostly unserved by the Mobile Support Team, says she’s been a “consistent advocate” for funding mobile-crisis services across the county. We expect her to continue that advocacy and hope her colleagues on the board are listening.

Presumably, the entire county pays for this strange mental health-services model which keeps its mobile services from straying beyond county central. Cleary it’s not working.

Expecting families to drag unstable family members across the county to Santa Rosa during a meltdown begs credulity, as does hoping a law enforcement officer with a bit of side training in crisis abatement will talk a Rod Cameron from the brink. In the cases of Cameron and Pritel it’s likely law-enforcement would have had to intervene before a mobile-support team could arrive from Santa Rosa – but when events unfold no one knows the time constraints; someone from county health should be at the ready.

What happened in the traumatic cases at the Sonoma Oaks and the Jolly Washer should be a warning that Sonoma is every bit as vulnerable to a tragedy on par with that of the March 9 killings at the Pathway veterans home in Yountville.

Because Rod Cameron didn’t merely die “fighting for his life.” He lived many a day like that as well. And so has Ryan Pritel, and countless other Sonoma County residents in mental crisis.

Whether that’s not along the Highway 101 corridor, be damned.

Email Jason at Jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.