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Sonoma County police departments examine new models to manage homeless, mental health needs

Facing rising calls for mental health and homelessness services, several police departments in Sonoma County are exploring ways to take matters into their own hands with new programs designed to reduce the need for armed officers to assist people in the midst of a health crisis.

The Santa Rosa Police Department is leading the local effort to pursue a program that would dispatch unarmed personnel trained in nonviolent interventions to such calls 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The model, based on one in place for more than three decades in Eugene, Oregon, would pair a licensed mental health clinician from a local nonprofit with a nurse or EMT to help individuals who are chronically without shelter, or struggling with mental health or substance dependence issues in the county’s largest city.

Insufficient state and federal funding to address mental health and homelessness at the local level has for years left communities across California searching for answers. As a result, traditional beat cops and officers who oversee traffic enforcement have increasingly been asked to fill the gap for services they are not specifically trained to handle.

“It is really, really needed in our community, and I think everyone agrees this is the direction we need to be going,” said Santa Rosa Mayor Tom Schwedhelm, who previously served as the city’s police chief. “I think it’s a benefit for the community, but also I know how challenging this is for police officers. There are many things the community asks of the police department, but they can’t be experts in everything. So I think this is win-win.”

The Santa Rosa Police Department received more than 21,250 calls related to homelessness in 2019, up nearly 20% from just two years earlier when the department began tracking the statistic. Last year’s total represented 15% of the department’s overall calls for officer response, which, combined with mental health- and drug-related issues, make up the vast majority of calls for service, according to Santa Rosa police Capt. John Cregan.

Santa Rosa is developing the new approach, which it estimates will cost about $2 million annually, in hopes of reducing by at least 5% the number of calls that sworn officers respond to each year. That would equate to about 7,000 of the roughly 140,000 calls overall the police department averaged over the past three years where it sent an officer.

Other local police departments are considering a similar program that is based on Eugene’s CAHOOTS model, which stands for Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets. Both Petaluma and Rohnert Park — the county’s next two largest cities — are in the early stages of researching the model and other options, including hiring their own full-time licensed social worker. Healdsburg has its own plans in place, too.

“It’s a huge issue, and law enforcement everywhere is dealing with it,” said Petaluma Police Chief Ken Savano, who is president of the Sonoma County Law Enforcement Chiefs Association. “We’re definitely pursuing it. There isn’t a peace officer who wouldn’t welcome some help with the greatest challenges facing us with demand for mental health services.”

“I know there’s definitely something that has to be done,” added Tim Mattos, director of Rohnert Park’s Department of Public Safety. “There aren’t a lot of other services to call to have a mental health worker at your house, so it falls on our personnel to handle. Right now, we are who people call.”

Each city is eyeing its own solution based on limited availability of the county’s existing Mobile Support Team, which until recently operated from 1 to 9 p.m. on weekdays only. Upon request, a team of two behavioral health clinicians who specialize in drug and mental health issues is dispatched to assist police officers in the field. The Department of Health Services program has been in place since fall 2012 and is funded mostly through a pair of state grants at about $1.9 million annually, said Bill Carter, director of the county’s behavioral health division.

The service expanded its coverage area last year to include west county, and through a recent funding infusion added northern Sonoma County this year. The Board of Supervisors last month committed $5.5 million in PG&E settlement dollars to the program into summer 2023, allowing the county Mobile Support Team to add a fourth paired unit and extend its current hours to Saturday and Sunday.

If voters pass Measure O, a quarter-cent tax to fund mental health and homelessness services, a portion of an expected $11 million carve out of annual revenues would go toward expanding the program even further — possibly transitioning into a 24/7 operation. The tax measure’s passage also would allow the county to reinstate at local high schools a crisis prevention and education team that fell victim to past budget cuts, Carter said.

The Healdsburg Police Department decided this summer it could no longer wait on the county to help with what it saw as a growing issue. Police Chief Kevin Burke presented the City Council with the idea of replacing a uniformed officer position with a bilingual, licensed clinical social worker to help with Healdsburg’s homeless and mental health needs, as well as provide greater review of city and department policies to increase racial and socioeconomic equity.

“It’s an experiment to be sure, but I think really part of the city showing its commitment,” Burke said. “We do what we do every day and the policies and procedures are all neutral on their face, but we’re looking for opportunities to improve. We’ll look to incorporate the social worker mindset not just in that part of calls for service, but to the department’s approach in how we respond to all situations.”

The Healdsburg City Council last month gave its formal blessing to the position, funding the role at up to $95,000 in salary a year plus benefits starting in 2021. Councilman Joe Naujokas, who spurred a discussion of police reforms in response to the local Black Lives Matter movement, called the move to bring on a full-time social worker a way for the department to “expand its toolset.”

“Not every problem is a nail, so not every solution is a hammer,” Naujokas said of the non-sworn role. “I’ve always been very proud of our department. And they’ve just proven themselves again by responding to the challenge of the day with this concept.”

Healdsburg has posted the position, and hopes to have the new hire trained and ready to hit the streets with a regular armed officer in the spring. Some of what the city learns in the process could be shared and may end up helping other cities down the road, Naujokas said.

Santa Rosa, meanwhile, intends to address calls for change to police policies through an “empowerment plan” that includes 18 public listening sessions through next month all overseen by the city’s community engagement division, a city spokeswoman said. That will allow the police department’s future model for homeless and mental health services to focus on those needs exclusively, Cregan said.

“Our goal, as quickly as a local nonprofit has the capacity, is to build a 24-hour, seven-days-per-week program,” he said. “This early intervention is a critical part of this process and will help avoid some of these incidents from evolving into violent encounters with family or community members. We can do better and this honestly is a moment to come together as a city and county and do better.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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