Lenny Marcus came home from work one night roughly six years ago to find his grown son incoherent, sitting on the floor of his Goleta home, surrounded by his own vomit.
Marcus recalled how his son, who was 24 at the time, could barely speak; he knew they would have to go to the hospital to pump his son’s stomach.
At some point before he went to the hospital, law enforcement arrived and demanded that deputies take him to the hospital instead of his family.
“My son was drunk, he was saying inappropriate things, and the police got mad at him,” Marcus recalled of that night.
Law enforcement officers eventually agreed to accompany the family to the hospital, he said.
“They followed us to the hospital and the police were very inappropriate,” Marcus said. “Eventually the hospital staff told the officer he had to wait outside because he was causing problems between my son and the staff.”
Marcus said deputies have responded to his home in Winchester Canyon several times, seeing a problem with his mentally ill son’s behavior when his son didn’t realize he had a problem himself.
“My wife was scared to death calling the police because she was afraid they were going to come and shoot my son,” he said. “You read about it in the paper all the time, where people are shot by police because they don’t realize they’re mentally ill.
“Something that a mentally ill person thinks isn’t a problem, the police think it is.”
This case was before Marcus got one National Alliance on Mental Illness class (NAMI) and learned about Santa Barbara County co-response teams, which pair a Department of Behavioral Welfare clinician with a specially trained law enforcement deputy to respond to 9-1-1 calls related to a mental health crisis.
“The co-op is the single best thing the county has ever done in my mind,” Marcus said. “I believe in him a lot. In my mind, it’s the only thing the county has done right when it comes to mental illness.”
The collaborative response team began as a pilot program in 2018 and has been so successful that, with grant funding for the pilot program ending in October, the county decided not only to continue its funding in perpetuity, but to increase staffing to three teams. .
In the co-response model, the deputy and clinician work together for a 10-hour shift and respond to crisis calls with the goal of preventing unnecessary hospitalizations or arrests for the mentally ill during times of crisis.
“If a call comes in that sounds like it’s mental health and not a crime, the team starts engaging with the individual to figure out what’s going on,” said Toni Navarro, director of the Department of Behavioral Welfare.
“They work with the individual to get them to a shelter, get them home and make sure those individuals don’t go to jail.”
Squads have responded to 1,707 calls since the start of 2020. Only 3% have led to arrests, according to data obtained by Noozhawk.
Of the calls the teams responded to, 28% were cases where the individual had an arrestable offence. Of the total calls the teams responded to, 96% avoided arrest.
“Our goal here is to help them,” Navarro said. “For 40 years without this cooperation, people with a common disorder or mental illness have been incarcerated many times.”
Co-response teams have responded to the Marcus family several times since the family learned about the program. Once, Marcus’ son was having a “real meltdown” in his room, taking a stick to the walls and screaming at the top of his lungs.
“So I called 9-1-1 and asked for a co-response team,” he said. “They came with three police cars, they talked to (my wife and I) in the dining room and they talked to my son outside.
“They basically just discussed it. They knew how to reason with him and how to help him.”
The program is not just about keeping people out of prison when possible, but diverting them from the criminal justice system as a whole and redirecting them to the right resources.
Just over 35% of co-response team meetings were proactive engagement and follow-up with people who have a history of mental illness.
“We can have a 15-year-old who threatened to shoot up a school, and what we can do is have a team come out two days a week and play basketball with them,” said Dr. Cherylynn Lee, manager of Sheriff’s Department Behavioral Sciences Unit.
“We have developed this incredible, evidence-based, common sense program and adopted it in our community to make it work. Our mission is not to punish people for being mentally ill, our mission is to provide support so they can live their lives outside of the mental health system.”
While collaborative response teams have been a proven success in Santa Barbara County, the behavioral health and sheriff’s departments had to learn to bridge the two different cultures to build that working relationship.
“Law enforcement and behavioral health departments have different cultures, so we really had to learn how to work with someone from a different culture,” said John Winckler, chief of the crisis services sector at the Department of Welfare. of Conduct.
“As relationships are built, we on the mental health side are really learning how to better communicate with law enforcement so that we don’t just feel like we’re riding in someone’s car — we’re in their car. together.”
The mission of law enforcement is public safety, and the mission of behavioral health is personal safety, Lee explained, adding that sometimes those things conflict.
“Behavioral health tends to focus on the person, law enforcement focuses on the situation and the world around them,” she said. “There would be some butting of heads, but now we can agree to disagree, whereas before we just wouldn’t agree.”
“There’s constant back and forth and learning and growth between the teams, but we really need each other to be effective. It’s really encouraging because you have psychologists talking and policemen talking, and we’re starting to use the same languages. We are light years ahead of where most agencies, counties and communities are.”
Because there aren’t enough co-response teams for 24/7 coverage, the Department of Behavioral Welfare is looking at ways to expand the program and hopes to add a fourth team in the near future, said Suzanne Grimmesey, a spokeswoman for the department.
In some jurisdictions in California, the co-response team also includes firefighters and paramedics, which is something the Department of Behavioral Welfare is exploring for Santa Barbara County, said John Doyel, the department’s assistant director.
Some communities have completely removed law enforcement from the co-response model, but that’s not something the Department of Behavioral Welfare sees happening here.
“I would not remove law enforcement from a collaborative response model,” Navarro said. “In Santa Barbara that’s not going to happen, because I really see the value of the safety of law enforcement all around.
“Law enforcement is getting a lot of training about signs and symptoms and how to divert people.”
“I don’t think the partnership will ever be perfect and I don’t think it should be,” she said. “But the fact that we’re doing it together is embedded in the community, in the stories, and the letters and the thank-you notes.”