Cop Who Cares
Published in the October 2002 issue of Hope
people with mental illness are often punished for "nuisance
crimes" they can't help committing. But Officer Joel Fay knows
how to help them get their lives on track.
NOT WHAT YOU'D EXPECT to hear on the streets, but ask around:
many of San Rafael's homeless people will say that the only
trouble with police officer Joel Fay is that there aren't
more like him. As the San Rafael Police Department's (SRPD)
liaison to the homeless who are mentally ill, this man in
blue is an ally and advocate for one of society's most disdained,
overlooked, and underserved groups.
has been applying his doctorate in psychology on the streets
since 1999, working to get this California city's homeless
out of jail and into housing, psychiatric treatment, and other
community services. His job is hard to pin downÑhe's
part cop, part social worker; part detective, part friend.
On a given day, he might do a "welfare check" to see if a
man is taking his medication, escort someone to a doctor's
appointment, visit the Mill Street Center for the homeless
to discuss a new client, and stop in St. Vincent's to find
out what happened to a woman with a new black eye. Other days
may be spent on a single dispatch. One day after September
11, for example, Fay was called in to diffuse the delusions
of a man convinced that terrorists had planted a nuclear bomb
in his brain.
SRPD's Mental Health Liaison program, launched by Fay, disavows
the traditional police approach of throwing mentally ill offenders
in jail and hoping they learn their lessons. Nearly one out
of five inmates in local jails reports mental health problems,
ill, though less than half of those receive treatment, according
to the U.S. Bureau of Justice. "When you're mentally ill,
you don't get the connection between crime and punishment.How
can we possibly expect them to stop committing crimes?" Fay
asks. The first, and perhaps most challenging, step to helping
them out of the law enforcement loop is making human contact.
homeless mentally ill are hard to reach," says Howard Richcreek,
Marin chapter co-president of the National Alliance for the
Mentally Ill, an advocacy organization for the mentally ill
and their families. "My own daughter, who has a schizoaffective
disorder, often won't talk to us about her illnessÉ.
Joel has the training and compassion to understand problems
[faced by the homeless mentally ill] and know how to approach
ONCE HOMELESS, keeps a ten-year-old ID card in his wallet,
a portrait of a filthy, wild-haired, and crazy-eyed man, to
remind him how far he's come. He camped out a block away from
the San Rafael police station for nearly twenty years. Fay
spent months just trying to strike up a conversation with
Jack, who was so unable to care for himself his feet were
rotting. Over time, Fay learned how paranoid schizophrenia
had pre-empted Jack's life as a college student and eventually
forced him to leave a career in advertising.
nearly two decades of homelessness and isolation, Jack now
has a home, a girlfriend, and a volunteer position with the
Marin Civic Center, where he used to be considered a nuisance.
It all started with a persistent but gentle offer from Fay
to take a shower. The officer took Jack to Ritter House, where
homeless people can shower, receive mail, do laundry, and
get help with everything from jobs to health care. With support
from Ritter House staff, Fay persuaded Jack to take medication,
telling him that it would help his ailing feetÑand
toward that end, a volunteer changed his socks, washed his
feet, and massaged ointment into them daily. Over the next
year, Fay worked to set Jack up with transitional housing,
medical care, therapy, and eventually a permanent home.
healthy part of him recognized that I wanted to help him,"
says Fay. "Jack changed how I view mentally ill homeless people,
because he was the first person whose story I really got to
know. I saw that it could have been me," he says.
has since helped brighten the story lines of dozens of lives.
There's Jeanie, who spent her final days reconnecting with
her sister rather than dying anonymously in the bushes, as
she might have if Fay hadn't found her. A man who at San Quentin
had burned a hole in his own arm to prove how "bad" he was
is now out of prison and, with Fay's help, off drugs, and
in school. One former high school valedictorian camped out
on San Rafael Hill for eleven years, in denial of his schizophrenia.
Fay helped get the man into a crisis unit to stabilize him
on medication; he now is in assisted living and has reunited
with his family.
of these people wouldn't normally trust their lives to a social
worker, let alone a cop. Yes, Fay wears the uniform, and his
pistol is loaded, but he's also gentle, soft-spoken, and a
patient listenerÑqualities that will disarm most anyone.
Most of all, it's his persistence and consistency: he appears
every day and shows that he cares; he does what he promises,
and many people on the street don't often experience that.
a rule, I don't trust anybody, but I respect Joel," says Andy,
who says he lost his home after an officer illegally searched
it and arrested him. "[Joel] tries to reroute people from
jail and keep them out of the vicious cycle, and it's a great
thing. If someone complains to the cops about us [homeless
people], whether it's true or not, we get hit for it. We are
very vulnerable; that's why we don't like to put ourselves
out there. Joel is more on our wavelength."
one of the most compassionate people that I knowÑhe's
aces," says Eric, shouting over the lunchtime hubbub at St.
Vincent's dining hall, which serves 300 free meals a day.
Fay negotiated with him after Eric refused to move his camp
from City Hall's lawn; on another occasion, he got Eric treatment
when a car knocked him off his bicycle.Ê "He tries to
facilitate between insanity -- those people walking around
the streets wounded from Reagan's cuts -- and the powers that
be," Eric says.
tries to engage with people however he can. Sometimes it's
bringing them food or clothing; often it's just spending a
few hours talking with them over coffee. Other times he wields
clout to get the job done. This may mean issuing a court order,
hospitalizing or jailing individuals, or controlling their
supplemental security income (SSI) with help from the public
guardian's office, other mental health professionals, or an
organization that has representative payee status with SSI
offices. These are last-resort tactics, however, generally
only used long enough to get them into treatment. "You have
to find the middle ground," says Fay, "between the rules and
HAD DREAMED of becoming a cop since he was a young boy, though
he never imagined it would lead him to earn a doctorate in
psychology and create a new beat. After attending police academy
in 1975, Fay joined the Rampart division of the Los Angeles
Police Department, an infamously corrupt and cynical squad.
you catch a lot of bad guys, and that's a lot of fun, because
you get to go fast and do cool things," says Fay. "But as
you mature in your career, you see the same people over and
over again, and you start getting frustrated. You work really
hard, you risk your life, your personal relationships are
hurting, you see these people get off on probation, and you
start thinking, What's the point? You can either wallow in
that, which I did for a while, or try something different."
left L.A. in 1987 for the well-to-do town of San Rafael, just
north of San Francisco, where he slowly began to realize that
being a cop had "much more to do with psychology than shooting."
Fay worked nights in order to attend daytime classes at the
American School of Professional Psychology in Point Richmond,
California, where he received a Psy.D. in 1999. His greatest
lesson was in "systems theory," or learning to see an individual
as inextricably linked to his or her environment. "When people
look at the homeless mentally ill, they say, there's a problem,
now go ahead and 'fix' them," says Fay. "I saw that I needed
to fix the system rather than fixing people."
FAY CAME on the scene, San Rafael's itinerants, merchants,
and cops were in a deadlock. The city's homeless hang-outs,
including Ritter House and St. Vincent's dining hall, are
clustered downtown, with encampments nearby in the hills and
under freeways. Downtown businesses, already in an economic
slump, weren't pleased with with the record numbers of homeless
darkening their doorsteps. Flooded with complaints, the SRPD
frequently arrested street people for nonviolent "nuisance
crimes," according to Fay.
station knew that a substantial number of the homeless are
mentally ill -- Fay estimates two thirds -- and that, lacking
proper treatment, most self-medicate with alcohol and other
drugs. "Some of them were generating literally hundreds of
calls for service every year. We had no solutions," says Mike
Cronin, who is now the city's chief of police. Cronin also
saw that the problem wasn't so much a shortage of service
providers for the mentally ill homeless as a difficulty connecting
the two. Cronin recognized Fay's unusual blend of experience
and training and asked him to be the missing link.
success stories like Jack's, Fay was able to show that it
was smarter to help keep people out of jail than put them
in. "Cops are a cynical lot, and we have had our share of
the 'plan du jour' to solve one problem or another," says
Cronin. "Many of them are troubled by the homeless, frustrated
about our lack of options and society's seeming indifference,
and resentful that the problem gets dumped on them. Joel makes
a lot of that go awayÑhe gets results."
HEARTS AND MINDS have helped Fay achieve those results. The
officer quickly realized that he couldn't help even one person
on his own; each client had so many different needs -- from
mental health, medical, and dental care, to places to shower,
sleep, and eat -- that he had to keep expanding his network.
His realization catalyzed a loose collaboration that has evolved
into a countywide Forensic Multidisciplinary Team, involving
more than twenty-five mental health, homeless advocacy, and
law enforcement agencies, including representatives from the
district attorney, probation, public defender, and sheriff's
team meets monthly to brainstorm tactics and develop treatment
plans for helping mentally ill offenders. With each new client,
the first thing they discuss is the person's life and what
brought them to homelessness. "Instead of listening to some
clinical picture of a paranoid schizophrenic who is resistant
to treatment, we talk about dreams, goals, and accomplishments.
That really changes how you view a person," says Fay. Connie
Borges, services coordinator for Ritter House and the forensic
team's case manager, was skeptical at first that the officers
would all take part in the multidisciplinary approach. "The
police used to either arrest [the mentally ill offenders]
or, if they were lucky, take them to the psych ward," says
Borges, who has worked with San Rafael's homeless for over
ten years. "Now if someone's having a problem, the officers
will call Joel or me and bring it up in a meeting."
no small miracle. Previously, the homeless shelter wouldn't
even tell Fay who was staying there; now he's almost considered
part of the staff. Creativity, compassion, and persistence
drive the forensic team's work. Their mantra is "Never give
up"; no client leaves the team's roster until they have made
the transition into the appropriate services, even if it takes
months or years. Still, no one on the team is immune to frustration
and hopelessness, says Fay, especially when every approach
they take with an individual seems to be a dead end. "In those
cases, I try to be the carrier of hope that change is possible.
I haven't always had that outlook -- I think it comes from
seeing so many 'hopeless' cases turn around, from watching
someone 'get it' just when you think there's no way you're
going to succeed," he says. "There's something inherent in
the human spirit to recover."
YEARS AFTER JACK first met Fay, he and dozens of San Rafael's
other formerly homeless people have settled into homes, jobs,
and health care. Service calls about the mentally ill homeless
have dwindled; for those who are arrested, the courts are
starting to hand down sentences that emphasize treatment,
not punishment. Chief Cronin has already pledged the SRPD
to the program for the next fifteen years. With a grant from
the Marin Community Foundation, another SRPD officer will
head off to graduate school this fall to prepare to take over
Fay's beat, as the forty-six-year-old will retire in less
than a decade.
Fay would love to take time to travel the world, he doesn't
plan to retire his badge and doctorate. Instead he hopes to
spend more time with the West Coast Post-Trauma Retreat, which
he helped to found. (At present, Fay spends as much as eighty
hours a month on the project, in addition to the sixty-hour
weeks he regularly puts in with SRPD -- thankfully supported
by a very understanding family.) The organization counsels
emergency responders suffering effects of on-the-job traumas
such as a colleague's death or a suicidal shooting, which
Fay himself once witnessed. He says that both the mentally
ill homeless and traumatized officers are often functioning
at high levels when something shatters their lives. His work
is to help them put the pieces back together again.
no other police force in the country has anything resembling
the Mental Health Liaison program yet, Fay and Cronin have
gotten inquiries from as far afield as Australia. Most agree
it will take someone with Fay's dedication and fire to make
something like the Mental Health Liaison program work elsewhere.
"You need to be a visionary," says Borges. "Joel has taught
us all to see the next right step for a person and not just
where they are right now."
to Know More?
Joel Fay, Psy. D.
1400 Fifth Ave.
San Rafael, CA 94901
415-485-5773, ext. 111366#