Shortly after Los Angeles was terrorized by disgruntled ex-police officer Christopher Dorner, Pima County sheriff's deputies reckoned with a situation with frightening similarities.
Their handling of an aggrieved former police officer who threatened to "kill 100 cops" and "do it better" than Dorner ended without bloodshed.
And it helped deputies develop a new approach to dealing with people who are mentally ill and potentially dangerous. The Pima County Sheriff's Department's Mental Health Support Team, a first-of-its-kind investigative unit, was launched in late May.
Deputies hope to turn the unit into a task force involving several Tucson-area police departments and a mental-health practitioner by the end of the summer.
Deputies are identifying cases where mental illness is a contributing cause and, in some instances, launching a simultaneous, parallel investigation geared toward getting a "suspect" appropriate care.
Oftentimes, that means providing a mental-health practitioner with additional information that could keep a patient in treatment longer. It also likely means more follow-up from deputies to ensure that treatment continues once the person is released from inpatient care.
"We just want to check in and know treatment is being done," said Capt. Deanna Johnson, who oversees the unit.
That follow-up is in effect in the case of a former Virginia Beach police and corrections officer who boasted to his father that he would outdo Dorner.
The case began commonly enough. The former police officer's father petitioned a judge in February to force a mental-health evaluation, and deputies served the court order, as they do some 300 to 500 times a year.
The ex-officer then began calling deputies to complain that his father was harassing him by driving by his house despite having an order of protection against him.
One deputy who responded to the former officer's calls reported that "he did not really make much sense" and mentioned that the former cop said "it breaks his heart that his dad is accusing him of trying to hurt other law enforcement officers."
But it wasn't until ex-officer's father came to the Green Valley substation to report his concerns about his son's threats and weapons cache that deputies took the case to the next level.
They had looked into former cop's background enough to have uncovered that he was fired from his law enforcement job and lost the subsequent wrongful termination lawsuit, and they had declined his application to volunteer for the sheriff's department. Deputies planned a ruse capitalizing on his interest.
When the former officer came in to the substation for what he thought was an interview, they handcuffed him and petitioned for a mental health evaluation.
Deputies then searched his house, uncovering a large armory after explosives technicians cleared the house of an inactive grenade.
Military-style rifles, ammunition and military gear filled a closet near the front door, department reports show. Swords hung on the wall, and pistols, daggers and other weapons were scattered around the house.
Even after the former officer was admitted for mental-health treatment, deputies were in touch with his doctors and added new information they discovered to his treatment file.
Deputies said they encouraged ex-cop's father to continue his order of protection. They continue to check on him intermittently to note his mental state.
Few pose a threat
Unit supervisors stress that the way they treated the former cop is not necessarily how they would handle everyone with mental illness.
For one thing, a tiny proportion of people with mental illness pose a threat to others.
The department is focused on identifying those people as well as those who are involved in so many deputy call-outs as to be a notable drain on resources.
For example, deputies have served mental-health court orders or responded to calls involving one woman nearly twice a month for more than three years.
Supervisors estimate that anywhere from 30 percent to 60 percent of calls are related to mental health in some way. By examining incident reports for escalating behavioral patterns, they hope to stop a tragedy before it happens.
In some cases, "we realized that if we had connected the dots, we probably could have found a solution months earlier," said Capt. Byron Gwaltney, who spearheaded the unit's creation.
"The big picture is to stop the next school shooting," said Deputy Jay Habkirk, one of two deputies who serves mental-health court orders full time.
The new unit also includes a sergeant, a detective and administrative staff who comb through cases that beat officers tagged for a mental-health review.
Change in mind-set
The unit represents not only an operational change, but also a profound mind-set shift among law enforcement officers, who have not always been praised for their compassion or negotiation skills.
With mass shootings having put mental illness firmly in the public eye, the cachet associated with skillfully and safely communicating with people in mental crisis is increasing among law enforcement.
Habkirk and his partner Deputy Steve Howell speak proudly of their "verbal judo."
Tucson Police Department, which runs a regionwide crisis-intervention training program, recently approved special uniform pins for officers who complete the program.
Still, negative views and mocking of the mentally ill have not altogether disappeared.
The TPD-run training that focuses on interaction with the mentally ill is not mandatory for law enforcement in part because of cultural resistance.
"The second you mandate training like that, you lose half your audience. You can't mandate empathy," said Sgt. Jim Kirk, who coordinates the class that trains 100 local officers a year.
But a change has happened.
"When I first came on the department, a crime was a crime was a crime," Kirk said. "Before, it was a choice between the hospital and jail. Most of the time, you chose jail because it was faster."
Now that the Crisis Response Center is in operation, officers average about 15 minutes per drop-off.
Helping law enforcement officials spot signs of a mental-health crisis and making it easier for them to get people the help they need has made a significant difference, said Neal Cash, the president and CEO of the Community Partnership of Southern Arizona, which contracts with the state to manage publicly funded behavioral health services in Pima County.
"It's a whole different caliber of officer out there," he said.
"We realized that (in some cases) if we had connected the dots in between, we probably could have found a solution months earlier. We only go back and connect the dots when there's a critical incident."
Capt. Byron Gwaltney, who spearheaded the unit's creation
Contact reporter Carli Brosseau at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4197. On Twitter: @carlibrosseau