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Mental Health 911

Police are increasingly on the frontlines of dealing with people with psychiatric problems. But they're often not adequately trained to de-escalate potentially violent encounters.



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In response to my email, Ralph Brown, legislative analyst and spokesperson for POST, explained the group's reasoning: "The hours issue equates to finance. Senator Beall did not offer a funding mechanism for the additional hours. To add more hours without a funding source would be similar to asking you to work more hours without paying you overtime."

And despite the increase in the mandated hours for police training on mental and behavioral health, California still does not require CIT training. Currently, only about one-quarter of local police departments nationwide offer an in-depth CIT training course, according to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics and the California Institute for Behavioral Health Solutions.

But the number of police encounters with the mentally ill continues to soar. From 2009 to 2014, the number of mental health-related calls made to the Oakland Police Department jumped by roughly 50 percent. And Police Officer Jeffrey Shannon, Berkeley's CIT training coordinator, said the number of calls to the Berkeley Police Department that resulted in an involuntary psychiatric hold shot up by 43 percent from 2009 to 2014.

Mental health experts attribute the rising numbers to a combination of too few hospital beds, not enough funding for mental health services and programs, and a rise in Alameda County's population. According to US Census estimates, the county added 100,000 residents from 2010 to 2014. But the number of available beds at Alameda County's psychiatric hospital, John George, has stayed at 69.

"The population has increased, so there are more mentally ill people, but [fewer] treatment beds than there were thirty years ago," said Millie Swafford, former criminal justice mental health director for Alameda County. "They don't have enough beds for people, so they have to figure, 'Who can we justify keeping, and who can we just let go?'"

Alameda County's John George Psychiatric Hospital has a 15.8-percent admission rate, so the vast majority of individuals who are taken by police to the facility end up getting released without any help waiting for them when they get out.

"From the law enforcement perspective, we're in the community, trying to get people help, and somehow the system kicks them right back out again," said Doria Neff, an Oakland police officer and Alameda County CIT coordinator. "It's our job to get them to the hospital, and if that doesn't work, we need to take them to the hospital again."

The increase in mental health calls to the Berkeley Police Department also correlates with a significant rise in the number of homeless people in the city. According to a survey from nonprofit homeless advocacy organization EveryOne Home, Berkeley's unsheltered homeless population swelled by 53 percent from 2009 to 2013.

And many of these homeless individuals are mentally ill. According to EveryOne Home, the number of homeless people with mental illness in Alameda County increased by 35 percent from 2011 to 2013, rising from 818 to 1,106.

"For folks with serious mental illness, if they do lose their housing, returning to housing is much more challenging, even if we have subsidies targeting that population," said Elaine deColigny, executive director of EveryOne Home. "There are the personal challenges they struggle with — plus landlord hesitancy to rent to them."

Berkeley resident Patricia Fontana-Narell knows this well. Her son has been homeless for the past eight years, largely the result of his bipolar disorder. Because he rejects treatment, the only people she knows who can help her son get treatment are the police. "I've had doctors tell me, 'If you really want him to get help, why don't you get your son arrested? Then you can get him help.' There's nothing for him in the mental health system."

East Bay police departments have responded to the increase in mental health related calls by slowly accepting their dual role as law enforcement agencies and social service providers. Officers in the Oakland Police Academy now get twenty hours of training in mental health issues. They can also take an optional CIT training course available for all officers in Alameda County nearly every month.

In the forty-hour CIT course, officers learn to de-escalate situations with mentally ill people who pose a danger to themselves and others. They also learn about the different mental health services offered throughout the county. In the CIT course, there are classes on cultural responsiveness, excited delirium, and making effective 5150 decisions (5150 refers to the section of the California Welfare and Institutions Code that allows law enforcement officers and healthcare workers to hold a person against his or her will when they deem a person to be dangerous).

Since December, the Berkeley Police Department has been training its officers in an abbreviated, eight-hour version of the CIT course. And the Oakland Police Department recently started a pilot program called the Mobile Evaluation Team, or MET, in which police officers team up with a clinician to respond to mental health emergencies. Right now, the MET team is able to respond to six to eight emergency calls per day. But the team is overwhelmed, because OPD receives roughly thirty mental health-related calls each day. Contra Costa County, meanwhile, has a Mental Health Evaluation Team, called MHET, but it's a follow-up team that arrives after a crisis is over rather than responding to the emergency.

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