[Santa Cruz County] Officials say around-the-clock liaisons unlikely

SANTA CRUZ — While crisis-intervention training has generated positive outcomes for county law enforcement, authorities do not believe existing mental health liaisons should be spread to all jurisdictions at all hours.

This week, a Santa Cruz County grand jury report generated responses — by five law enforcement agencies, Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors, Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency and Santa Cruz Regional 9-1-1 — to a report published in September that called on improved integration among law enforcement, behavioral health and telecommunications officials addressing mental health crises.

Authorities said it is too soon to assess the effects of newly implemented crisis-intervention training designed to reduce risks when police respond to mental health crises.

“While the goal of (the training) is to increase safety encounters for the public and law enforcement officers, we do not yet have sufficient data to make conclusions about whether the training has yet resulted in less use of force,” Santa Cruz Police Chief Andy Mills wrote in his response to the grand jury report.

Most 911 calls regarding behavioral health crises involve people who pose no threat to others, the grand jury reported in September in Mills also recommended that law enforcement continue to be called to emergencies that might involve behavioral health problems.

“We would not consider dispatching an officer to be overuse of resources should the call turn out to require a strictly clinical response,” Mills wrote.

The grand jury recommends the county’s Behavioral Health Mobile Emergency Response Team expand services to include 911 calls. The idea: Allow the response team to send staff with a officer to 911 calls for non-threatening crises, a classification that would need to be established the Santa Cruz Regional 911 system to reduce the burden on law enforcement.

The grand jury report also called for Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency, the behavioral health oversight for services and contracted care providers, and the county’s five law-enforcement agencies to create a plan to make mental-health liaisons available to respond to 911 calls at all hours in all jurisdictions. Five liaisons work with Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office, and Santa Cruz and Watsonville police.

The county launched a program in 2013 for liaisons to accompany peace officers on 911 mental-health calls. The county funds half of the program; each law enforcement agency covers remaining expenses.

Mills, in response, said law enforcement should be able to continue to improve services and did not agree that the liaisons should be dispatched to all jurisdictions at all hours as needed.

“We will continue to make data-driven staffing decisions in conjunction with our partners and should the need for re-evaluation occur, we will do so,” Mills wrote.

Scotts Valley Police Chief Steve Walpole wrote that there is not an “overuse” of law enforcement hours without the Mobile Emergency Response Team being dispatched through 911. Watsonville Police Chief David Honda made the same point in his response: “It is difficult to determine the level of threat or imminent threat to life until someone who is trained arrives on the scene to evaluate. So, from a safety perspective an officer will most likely be dispatched to a call with MERT until the threat level has been determined, not changing or lessening the use of law enforcement.”

Behavioral Services Director Erik Riera, in his response, disagreed with the grand jury’s recommendation for a hired contractor to operate the county’s behavioral health unit to enhance transparency of services.

“The contracts for operation of the behavioral health unit and crisis stabilization program are approved by the board of supervisors and available to the general public, and include provisions for state-required disclosures, complaint processes and more,” Riera wrote. “Contracting for medical services is not unusual in Santa Cruz County or in any other county. We believe this provides medical expertise and improved care for clients as well as reducing costs for taxpayers, including future retirement obligations.”

November 20, 2018

Santa Cruz Sentinel

By Michael Todd