Santa Clara County wants alternatives to tear gassing the mentally ill
The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously for the county Office of Correction and Law Enforcement Monitoring to review the use of chemical options such as tear gas in county jails. File photo.

    Santa Clara County Sheriff Bob Jonsen vowed to improve mental health care in the county jail during his campaign last year, yet tear gas and pepper spray are still used on incarcerated individuals with mental health issues.

    Sheriff deputies in the jail use tear gas and oleoresin capsicum spray, or pepper spray, on mentally ill individuals who won’t willingly leave their cells when being relocated, for medication or during an emergency. On Tuesday, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously for the county Office of Correction and Law Enforcement Monitoring to work with the Sheriff’s Office, custody health and county counsel and report back with an evaluation of alternatives to chemical agents. It also requested a review of video from adjacent cells to ensure individuals were evacuated and decontaminated when chemicals were used.

    The monitoring group had previously been tasked by the board to assess the use of tear gas and pepper spray in the county jail. It presented a report showing in 14 of 17 cases, deputies acted upon requests from medical and mental health officials to move non-compliant incarcerated individuals from their cells, sometimes to receive court-ordered medication or as suicide prevention.

    Jonsen said he’s been consistent in following his campaign promises and would like additional deputies trained in working with individuals who are incarcerated with mental health issues. Regarding the use of chemicals, Jonsen said he wants alternatives that do the least amount of harm.

    “Community members want us to not use something that is actually very effective in not bringing physical harm to the individual that needs to be moved,” Jonsen told San José Spotlight. “If somebody can show me a safer, less harmful way of extracting somebody who needs medication or care, I’m always going to be open to looking at that.”

    Supervisor Otto Lee said there are better ways to get someone to comply with leaving their cell. Lee told San José Spotlight tear gas used outdoors still causes pain, so using it in a confined environment is disconcerting.

    “We certainly want to minimize the use of this as much as we can by having clear policy,” Lee said.

    Lee said he could see chemical agents being used to prevent someone with a mental illness from immediately harming themselves, another incarcerated person or staff, but these instances should be extremely rare.

    “We have to balance the need of safety for our staff as well,” he said. “We do not want to take away tools that they need to do their job effectively and safely … at the same time we need to make sure that the use is humane and safe.”

    Supervisor Susan Ellenberg said at the meeting that correctional officers face challenging situations when engaging with individuals who suffer from a variety of mental illnesses, because there aren’t enough mental health facilities. She said no situation should outweigh the rights and safety of a person in custody. Last year, Lee and Ellenberg declared a mental health and substance use crisis in the county.

    “I have been vocal about shifting the county budget and prioritization toward mental health infrastructure and alternatives to incarceration because so many of the people in our jails don’t belong there,” Ellenberg told San José Spotlight. “Understanding not only the tools we are currently using, but also what alternatives exist and when we can use them is critical to ensure we aren’t further traumatizing people.”

    For Raj Jayadev, co-founder of the advocacy group Silicon Valley De-Bug, the use of any chemical agent on incarcerated individuals, particularly those with mental health issues, is inhumane.

    “It’s chemical warfare against people that are the most vulnerable,” he told San José Spotlight. “The sheriff said … they’re going to use it compassionately. You can’t use a chemical weapon, that is a military grade weapon, against people who are going through a mental health crisis and consider that compassionate.”

    Jayadev said he doesn’t believe claims that using tear gas or pepper spray in the jails avoids physically restraining an individual. He said it just means they’re going to suffocate first.

    “I don’t think that the change in who’s running the sheriff’s department has changed the reality of those that they are in charge of,” he said. “Sheriff Jonsen … if anything has double downed on the problems.”

    Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected].

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