Controversy surrounding the 2017 death of county jail inmate Andrew Holland dogged San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson at another of his town hall meetings Wednesday.
In the rural community of Santa Margarita, Parkinson spoke and answered questions from the public for about two hours, on topics ranging from Holland’s death to gang activity to the growing heroin problem in the county.
And while Parkinson touched on subjects like cannabis grows and a decrease of petty theft in the immediate area, it was mental illness that dominated the conversation.
“I want to say that our mental health system is very broken, in at least California,” Parkinson said. “And it’s been broken for some time. And what people don’t really collectively realize is that it’s not gotten better, it is getting worse.”
The town hall was one in a series Parkinson has been periodically hosting around the county. The focus of the meeting was intended on crime issues and law enforcement specific to the Santa Margarita area, but during the question and answer period, Parkinson was challenged by some in the audience, asking why the Sheriff’s Office explanation of Holland’s death was disputed by a jailhouse surveillance video reported on by KCBX News and publicly released by the San Luis Obispo Tribune, and why members of the jail staff appeared in the video to be laughing in the moments after Holland died.
“When you’re seeing a fraction of the story and you’re making your mind up what happened, that’s not particularly fair,” Parkinson said. Some in the crowd immediately objected. “Can you answer the question if someone was disciplined? That was the original question, if someone was disciplined?” an audience member asked.
Another audience member asked Parkinson about the current Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) examination into Holland’s death - and other recent in-custody deaths - at the jail.
“They are an independent body that I feel very strongly has the ability to look at this subjectively and make those determinations, and so timing-wise...I don’t know," Parkinson said. "I don’t have an answer for you other than it’s in their hands to determine."
Parkinson spoke at length about mentally ill people accused of committing a crime.
“How do we deal with this issue?" Parkinson said. "How do we deal with the fact that we just had this tragedy, and a failure of the system...which includes me and my agency, that includes mental health, that includes the health agency...how do we deal with this issue?”
The San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Office says policies and procedures have been changed over the past year as a result of Holland's death. Yet there are still 11 inmates currently housed at the San Luis Obispo County jail, waiting to be transferred to a state mental hospital, Parkinson said.
Across the state, there are now 920 severely mentally ill people charged with felonies waiting in county jails to be transferred to state hospitals. And there are no solutions on the horizon to increase the capacity of mental health facilities, the need of which a state hospital official said, according to Parkinson, is growing each year in California by ten to fifteen percent.