Changing rules of engagement for police and the homeless and mentally ill

Starting this month, if you call 911 and want help from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, you may be asked to take a short questionnaire:

Is the person you are calling in immediate danger or creating a safety hazard?”

“Are they committing a crime?”

“Are there weapons involved?”

Answering yes or no to these and similar questions will determine whether a paramedic or mental health professional will answer the call. The new screening process is part of a broader, coordinated push by the Sheriff’s Department and the Orange County Health Services Agency to focus policing on traditional crime and social work to help people who they are in crisis

In one sense, the two-way response system is just the latest step in a long-running effort by the county’s largest police agency and county health officials to segregate criminal and social problems from way that they can benefit all members of the community. . Several years ago, the Sheriff’s Department created its Bureau of Behavioral Health, which includes three sergeants, a dozen or more deputies and up to 40 civilian mental health workers who collectively respond to illness-related calls mental It’s unclear if that office will expand or respond to more calls, but it’s not expected to shrink as a result of the new 911-based screening process.

“I think, to the public, this might seem like a big change. But we’ve always worked closely with the sheriff’s department,” said Veronica Kelley, who heads the behavioral health division at the OC Health Care Agency. which now includes the newly formed OC Links, a unit that connects people in crisis with counselors or other service providers. .

Kelley, who noted that people in his agency worked with sheriff’s deputies to create the screening questions for the 911 “decision tree,” said the county’s mental health workers have been integrated with the police agencies for several years to help reduce violence by or against law enforcement.

“Everybody’s instinct, when something happens, is to call 911 and have the police come first. But they’re not (mental health) doctors,” Kelley said.

“They receive training, they learn to de-escalate. But as we’ve seen across the country, sometimes the interaction between someone in mental crisis and the police can lead to violence,” he added.

“This affects individuals, on both sides.”

Crazy quilt answer

While the new screening program affects people in crisis or city hall security, it also reflects the increasingly divergent ways in which California’s communities and law enforcement agencies deal with the mentally ill and unhoused .

Since 2021, several of Orange County’s largest cities, including Irvine, Anaheim and Huntington Beach, have contracted with Be Well, an independent nonprofit organization that provides mental health experts to help officers on the job with the homeless and the mentally ill. And nationally, many of the nation’s largest police forces in New York, Philadelphia and Dallas, among others, have beefed up staffing and training to reduce violence with the mentally ill without necessarily arresting and incarcerating more people.

However, in the midst of all this, a counter-tendency has emerged. In the past 18 months, several cities that had a reputation for responding to social crime with little or no police response have changed their outlook.

In San Francisco, widely seen as the most liberal city in America, the police department late last year ordered officers to enforce laws against camping or sleeping in public, at least when the people involved have access to a reception bed.

Since late 2021, police in parts of Los Angeles have stepped up enforcement of 41.18, an ordinance that says people can be fined or even jailed for sitting, lying, sleeping or installing personal property on the sidewalks of the city.

And last year, in Santa Ana, the City Council ordered police to enforce crimes that many consider synonymous with homelessness and mental illness, such as public drunkenness, exposure and disturbing the peace.

“It was not a new policy, per se. It was just a directive to stop overlooking certain types of criminal behavior,” said Santa Ana Councilman Phil Bacerra, a city planner who was elected in 2019 after telling voters he would call for a tougher stance on how the city manages the problems of the homeless.

“Homelessness is not a crime. We are not medieval England”, said Bacerra. “But a crime is a crime. And in Santa Ana, all crimes are subject to law enforcement.”

Bacerra said the city’s approach involves both the stick and the carrot. While police are encouraged to crack down on public intoxication, for example, they are also urged to offer people ways to stay sober or find shelter.

“This community is compassionate. We have more beds and shelter services than anyone else in the county. But a lot of people have also become frustrated.”

Still, it’s unclear how or if the city’s tougher stance has affected homelessness. Bacerra said a recent homeless census, the Point in Time count every two years, will tell if the numbers are going up or down in Santa Ana.

“Nobody thinks we can stop for a problem,” Bacerra said. “But there are nuances to this. And ultimately, public safety is paramount.”

Less contact, less conflict

This new 911 quiz could affect many lives.

The Sheriff’s Department provides police services to 13 cities and unincorporated Orange County, covering about a quarter of the county’s 3.1 million residents. Each year, dispatchers receive about 10,000 calls related to mental health issues and the homeless.

While it’s too early to tell how many of those calls will be diverted to county health workers, experts of all political stripes say keeping police focused on traditional crimes and mental health experts connected to social ills is more efficient for residents and cheaper for taxpayers.

“I think it can save lives and also save the county money,” said Eve Garrow, a senior policy analyst with the ACLU of Southern California who focuses on homelessness.

“If the law doesn’t need to be enforced, it shouldn’t be deployed.”

That said, the screening isn’t expected to immediately reduce the number of deputies sent to help people looking for it.

Answering “yes” to any of the half-dozen questions posed by dispatchers will result in an officer being dispatched to the scene. Similarly, any calls sent to OC Link where civilian mental health workers begin the process of figuring out how to respond and help the caller can be sent back to the Sheriff’s Department if the county mental health worker believes that this is justified. Even the caller’s tone of voice can be cited by a dispatcher as reason to request a police response.

“Deputies will remain involved at the same level,” said sheriff’s department spokesman Sgt. Frank Gonzalez.

“Our deputies are trained to handle and accommodate all types of calls and situations.”

But if the new screening can steer deputies away from noncriminal issues and toward other safety-related issues, Gonzalez suggested that goal will be accomplished.

“Our core mission is to protect the community,” he said. “We go down any appropriate path, or any direction, to do that.”

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