Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman has vowed this year to stop sending deputies to nonviolent, emergency mental health calls.
Having deputies respond to such crises is a poor use of law enforcement resources, he said, one resulting in the incarceration of people who need psychiatric help, not the frequent outcome of jail. Calling police to a mental health situation can trigger a crime that otherwise would not have occurred, such as resisting arrest, he said.
It’s a nationwide issue, with more than half of people incarcerated in local jails estimated to have mental health problems. Two million people with mental illness, most of them nonviolent, are booked into jails each year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“Taking a mentally ill person to jail for a minor crime is not taking steps forward and it’s costing the government thousands of dollars each time,” Allman said.
He said he’s hoping his declaration, made at a recent joint meeting of supervisors and the mental health advisory board, will encourage the county to improve its mental health crisis response.
“I’m saying the government should respond,” he said. “But it shouldn’t be a guy with a gun and a badge.”
He did not give a date for when the new practice would begin. He has been meeting with the county’s contractor for mental health crisis intervention, Redwood Community Services, to discuss the issue and develop possible solutions.
Redwood Community Services officials say they already conduct the vast majority of mental health evaluations without assistance from law enforcement. Law enforcement referred 26 percent of the agency’s 450 emergency mental health responses between October and December, officials said. The majority of other cases — 52 percent — were initiated by the patients, their families or friends, while 13 percent were referred by community or county agencies and 9 percent by clinics and hospitals.
“There may not be a realistic way of reducing” law enforcement involvement significantly, said Redwood Community Services Executive Director Camille Schraeder, but her agency is willing to work with Allman to make changes.
The agency currently has 10 mental health crisis workers, including two available at night, one on the coast and one inland. The agency’s crisis response budget, not including hospitalization, is about $1.6 million, Schraeder said.
Mendocino County Supervisor Dan Hamburg said no one wants deputies to respond unnecessarily to mental health crises.
Law enforcement responses to mental health crises typically begin with patient, family or friend’s call to 911 and a dispatcher must decide between a referral to mental health or law enforcement.
In the future, Allman said he expects to direct dispatchers to transfer all calls in which there are no weapons involved and no one is in danger to the mental health crisis hotline.
That’s how it should be, Hamburg said.
“If it’s really clear it’s not a danger or a crime is being committed, Redwood ... has the ability to deal with those,” he said.
You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 707-462-6473 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @MendoReporter