Deputies Team Up With Clinicians in Santa Barbara Another model for responding to people in crisis

Members of the Co-Response team in Santa Barbara | Provided photo

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By Joe Livernois

Soon after a murderous rampage left six people dead and 14 injured in the Santa Barbara County university town of Isla Vista in 2014, George Kauffman was asked by an NBC reporter about the “failure” of policing in his community.

It turns out that sheriff’s deputies had done a welfare check on Elliot Rodger a couple of days before he stabbed, bludgeoned and shot roommates and random people in and around the UC Santa Barbara campus. Rodger’s parents had asked for the check. Deputies determined that Rodger did not meet the criteria for an involuntary mental health commitment.

Kauffman is president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Santa Barbara County, so the reporter sought his opinion on the public heat the Sheriff’s Office was taking about its judgement during the welfare check. Kauffman had some experience with police over the issue of wellness checks with his own son. He knew from experience that some people in a mental-health crisis can manage to hold it together for the 10 or 15 minutes they deal with police.

Eventually, Kauffman managed to disabuse the reporter of the notion that deputies dropped the ball. “I said, if you’re going to indict someone, indict the mental-health system,” he said.

But Kauffman told Voices of Monterey Bay that the events of that tragic day in 2014, which only ended after Rodger turned a gun on himself, were a “wake-up call” for the entire community, including mental health advocates and law enforcement officers.

With a renewed commitment to improve response to people in mental-health crisis, community leaders ultimately settled on a program that embeds mental-health clinicians with crisis-trained deputies in Santa Barbara County. The idea is to de-escalate potentially explosive situations and to divert people in crisis to get the help they need, rather than sending them into the legal system.

The Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office launched the “Co-Response” program as a pilot effort in early 2019, and it now employs four teams to cover the unincorporated areas of Santa Barbara County. One of those teams started up this week in the city of Santa Barbara, according to Dr. Cherylynn Lee, the behavioral sciences manager who administers the program. Another team is expected to start in Santa Maria soon.

The Mental Health Crisis Co-Response Team operates out of the county Sheriff’s Office, and it teams mental-health clinicians with deputies who are trained in de-escalation techniques learned during crisis intervention training sessions conducted for police in Santa Barbara County.

Kauffman is a fan of the program, saying it is already diverting people in crisis into programs that help, instead of jail.

Voices of Monterey Bay last month introduced a proposal to create a crisis response program across the entire county 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Voices calls its proposal REACT, an acronym for Response & Emergency Assistance Crisis Team. REACT is meant to supplant police response to non-criminal 911 calls that involve people in personal crisis.

Communities throughout the country are developing aggressive new programs in an effort to provide alternative responses to people in crisis. The aim is to keep people who are living with mental illness, poverty or addictions out of the criminal justice system while providing them with the help they actually need. At the moment, REACT is the only tangible proposal on the table in Monterey County.

After introducing its proposal last month, Voices has introduced readers to the variety of alternative response programs currently in operation in other areas. Voices proposed REACT as a measure to get the conversation started in Monterey County, but it acknowledges that other valid crisis-response models deserve serious consideration. Among those programs featured in Voices are CAHOOTS, in Eugene, Ore., and mobile crisis response programs in Alameda County.

Many of the crisis-response programs in other cities and counties do not involve police at all, but  instead deploy teams of emergency medical technicians and psychiatric social workers to handle non-emergency calls that police officers were being asked to resolve.

The Santa Barbara County program is different because it teams mental-health professionals with law enforcement, and the program is administered by the Sheriff’s Office.

In size and in socio-economic terms, Monterey and Santa Barbara counties are similar. Both are coastal counties with populations that rely on tourism and agriculture, and the visible differences in wealth and poverty in the two counties are striking. Both boast populations in the mid-400,000s and both have a land area significantly larger than the state of Delaware (Monterey County is 3,771 square miles, and Santa Barbara County is larger by only 18 square miles).

Kauffman and others from Santa Barbara described the successes and the challenges of its county’s Co-Response Team during the NAMI California annual conference this week.

Kauffman said Santa Barbara County officials are aware of mobile crisis units that don’t include police, but he said he believes those programs aren’t failsafe. “Clinicians don’t always know if a situation they’re walking into is secured,” he said. “It doesn’t mean you go in with lights flashing and guns drawn. Sooner or later, police are going to be involved.”

The program in Santa Barbara County is funded through 2022 with patched-together grants. Lee said she believes that will give her team enough time for “robust” data collection to show whether people in crisis are getting the help they need and whether expected cost savings in law enforcement budgets are realized. (It is generally cheaper and more humane to divert people in crisis into care facilities than it is to move them through the criminal justice system.)

Kauffman said that after the violent rampage in Isla Vista, community leaders representing various interest groups gathered in an effort to make systemic changes to how institutions deal with mental health, addiction, policing and homeless issues in the county. The county sheriff in Santa Barbara County has been enthusiastic about crisis intervention and about a unique national program called Stepping Up, which deals with how local governments deal with mental illness.

Co-Response teams are deployed in larger nearby counties, including Los Angeles and San Diego, and representatives in Santa Barbara were impressed with the outcomes in those counties, so they sought to replicate the program there.

While a function of the Sheriff’s Office, the team travels in an unmarked vehicle and the deputy “dresses down,” and does not arrive on the scene in full uniform, said Lee.

Lee said the teams’ goals are “de-escalating crisis situations, preventing injuries to individuals in crisis and linking individuals who are experiencing psychiatric emergencies to appropriate services in the community.” She also said the teams are expected to reduce costs by diverting people away from the criminal justice system.

During a four-month period ending in June, deputies were dispatched to 1,016 crisis calls, and 629 of those calls were handled by the Co-Response teams. During that period, a dozen people seen by the teams were arrested. The deputies assigned to Co-Response teams do not make arrests, but they will seek backup from other deputies if they determine that someone they encounter needs to be arrested, Lee said.

She said her goal is to create teams capable of covering the entire county 24 hours a day, seven days a week. “We know it’s working,” she said. “It’s reducing the use of force. It’s working and we want more of that.”

Editor’s note: Joe Livernois is president of the Monterey County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. This story does not imply support of any program by NAMI.

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Joe Livernois

About Joe Livernois

Joe Livernois has been a reporter, editor and columnist in Monterey County for 35 years.

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