SANTA CRUZ — The front-line response to emergency calls involving individuals experiencing a mental health crisis has been the subject of much debate on the local and national levels in recent years.
But for the first time in Santa Cruz County, officials say they have a cross-jurisdictional survey that can serve as a “baseline of understanding” for ongoing discussions about how the response effort can be refined and improved.
This week, the county’s Criminal Justice Council released its 2022 annual report which focused on the policies, training and procedures enacted by local law enforcement and mental health liaisons in response to service calls stemming from behavioral health issues.
According to survey results, 577 emergency 911 calls in the county were labeled with mental health codes by dispatchers and police from June 1 to Aug. 15 alone.
Zach Friend, the Santa Cruz County supervisor representing the 2nd District and also chair of the Criminal Justice Council, said this figure is likely a significant undercount. He said the report has given “a better sense of the magnitude of the issue within our community and where there are gaps – both on the back end or the bedside and on the front end or the prevention and response side.”
It was the “back end” snapshot that revealed glaring concerns for Friend.
According to the report, of the 577 calls with mental health codes, 100 resulted in transportation of individuals to local facilities. About 83 of these individuals were taken to a behavioral health unit or psychiatric health facility for care.
“What was concerning was that there were times that Telecare was full and somebody who needed acute help was instead transported to Dominican,” said Friend, adding that this transfer to the hospital is not a sustainable solution.
Corinne Hyland, spokesperson for the county’s Human Services Agency, said the county has 16 total inpatient psychiatric beds all located at a facility in Soquel operated by Telecare.
About 16 of the 100 “transports” went to Dominican Hospital and four of those individuals went to an “overflow” unit because hospital space was also running thin.
“We do not have enough bed facilities to meet this growing need,” Friend said.
The response side
Conversely, Friend said there was some clarifying data and silver linings when it came to the response side of things.
Three of the five law enforcement agencies included in the survey – the Sheriff’s Office along with the Watsonville and Santa Cruz police departments – work with local mental health liaisons that bring a behavioral health expertise to service calls. Local organizations such as Santa Cruz County Behavioral Health, Encompass Community Services, Homeless Resource Project and more have partnered with law enforcement for liaison services, according to the report.
The Scotts Valley and Capitola police departments responded by saying they do not currently work with these liaisons due to budget restrictions and minimal calls for service, but both indicated an interest in sharing a liaison with another jurisdiction.
That willingness to participate in the liaison program is significant, as the number of mental health-related service calls is growing and the county is not without incidents in this sphere that have resulted in tragedy.
In 2016, 32-year-old Sean Arlt was shot and killed by police outside his Westside residence after brandishing a metal bow rake during a confrontation. According to Sentinel reporting, the police had successfully subdued Arlt just a week prior during an episode of mental illness at the same location.
Friend said the report is intentionally not prescriptive, but drew lines between reports from prior years and recent policy outcomes.
The 2021 council report honed in on use-of-force policies at local law enforcement agencies as a national conversation on the topic was continuing to unfold. Friend said the report played an important role in the county board’s decision to create the Office of Inspector General in December, which will provide independent oversight and review of the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office.
He also acknowledged that the Santa Cruz community has a broad spectrum of views in terms of what role law enforcement should play in mental health incidents – if any.
However, he pointed out that both law enforcement and mental health liaisons in the survey agreed that the liaisons should be present during a behavioral health call and all five mental health liaison respondents said they preferred to answer behavioral health service calls with an officer.
The data “is pretty clear,” he said and law enforcement will need to have a “significant role” in mental and behavioral health service calls moving forward, but more work lies ahead.
“There isn’t a typical call,” Friend said. “The system needs to be coordinated and interlocked in a way that I believe it currently has the foundations of, but it could be expanded to be better.”
Friend said the council is likely to turn its attention to the courts and jail system for its 2023 report. For information about the council, visit santacruzcjc.org.
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