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Law enforcement officers dealing with people in crisis now have some backup from a squad of Sonoma County mental health professionals and substance abuse counselors.

After years of discussion, the county health department's Mobile Support Team became operational in October, responding to 96 incidents so far, said Michael Kennedy, the Sonoma County Mental Health Services director.

The program, now limited to central Sonoma County, is designed to get people the help they need faster and make it easier for counselors to follow up with them or their families after an incident to ensure they're getting the treatment they need, Kennedy said.

"It's really already showing some really good effects," Kennedy told the Santa Rosa City Council on Tuesday.

The team is part of a broader push to improve the way police respond to people with behavior problems stemming from mental illness or alcohol and substance problems. It has been something community members have been requesting since 2005, Kennedy said.

The effort took on greater urgency after the 2007 shooting of 17-year-old Jeremiah Chass by deputies in Sebastopol and the shooting of 30-year-old Richard Desantis by Santa Rosa officers a month later.

Both were killed during violent psychotic episodes: Chass after holding his 6-year-old brother hostage with a knife in the family mini-van, and Desantis after he heard voices coming from his attic and fired a gun into the ceiling.

Critics in both cases accused law enforcement of using excessive force.

The team, however, won't be introduced into such dangerous incidents, explained Lt. John Nolan, who said the program isn't designed to "fix all situations."

"Anything involving weapons or an opportunity for explosive violence against another person, we are not going to introduce (the Mobile Support Team) into that," Nolan said.

The first phase of the effort began in 2008 with crisis intervention training for officers. To date more than 300 officers, including 70 percent of Santa Rosa police and Sonoma County sheriff's deputies, have received that intensive four-day training, Kennedy said.

The county authorized the creation of the support team as the second phase in 2010. This two-pronged approach is being used in about 60 cities and counties in the state, and is credited with significantly better outcomes, he said.

Kennedy said the annual budget for the program is about $500,000. A similar team was created in the late 1990s, but was disbanded after grant funding ran out.

Since then, it has been up to officers to use their own judgment about whether a person needs to be taken to the county's around-the-clock psychiatric emergency services unit on Chanate Road, near Sutter Medical Center. The unit, known as PES, can hold patients for up to 24 hours.

Now that determination will be made by professionals with more training, with officers still transporting individuals to the facility if necessary, Nolan said.

"In the past, we've had a police response to deal with the vast majority of these, and now we have a new tool, a new resource that helps us provide more services in a real-time manner," Nolan said.

Initially, because of budget constraints, the team – whether called in by dispatch or officers – will respond to incidents along the Highway 101 corridor between Todd Road and Windsor, and from Mission Boulevard in the east and Stony Point Road to the west.

The county examined a year's worth of responses and found a high concentration of such incidents in the area, Kennedy said. About 75 percent took place between 2 p.m. and midnight, and so for now those are the hours the service is available, Kennedy said.

Santa Rosa Police Chief Tom Schwedhelm and his staff have been strong supporters of the program and helped forge "a really strong partnership," Kennedy said.

"Nowadays you have to partner. Neither of us can do our jobs without the other," he said.

Councilmembers roundly praised the program Tuesday.

"I think it's an excellent example of collaboration, which is ultimately going to be more cost effective for our community," Mayor Scott Bartley said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com.