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As OC cities embark on using medical and social workers – rather than police – to respond to non-emergency mental health calls, myriad questions have arised about how it will work in practical terms. 

Given the time it’s taking city police to respond to mental health calls that don’t involve crimes or public safety, cities are now hiring medical teams to start responding to some of these calls.

One local program in OC is called Project HOPE, and is slated to start rolling out in Huntington Beach in late July. Anaheim and Garden Grove have also signed on, with Fullerton and Buena Park exploring it as well.

Voice of OC spoke with Huntington Beach City Manager Oliver Chi – who is overseeing the effort – to ask how the program will be rolled out and what types of calls they’ll handle.

The idea – based on the CAHOOTS model in Eugene, Oregon – is to redirect 9-1-1 calls to the medical team when there’s a mental health situation that is “non-exigent,” meaning it doesn’t involve a crime or public safety issue.

By integrating it into the existing 9-1-1 infrastructure, residents don’t have to remember a different number to call, Chi noted.

When a call comes in, the 9-1-1 dispatcher would then send out a two-person team of crisis intervention workers – one of whom has an EMT background and the other with a psychiatric or social worker background.

They would be tasked with helping the person in crisis stabilize by addressing the immediate issues they’re dealing with, Chi said.

“That could mean helping someone find a detox center, or providing an individual with basic needs related to hygiene, food, and shelter,” he added.

“The team might be asked to defuse a family conflict, or be out in the field conducting wellness checks on individuals with known mental health or addiction issues,” he continued.

“In short, the Project HOPE team is being developed like a Swiss Army knife when it comes to helping out any person in the midst of a crisis situation.”

Huntington Beach City Manager Oliver Chi

The new response team also would free up police to respond to crime calls, Chi said.

“It’s a growing need in the community to have a tool to address mental health, addiction and homeless-related issues,” he added.

The plan is to roll out the program – starting at a small scale this summer – and then improve it over the next year, Chi said.

Officials will also examine whether it helps make police more effective in crime fighting and community policing, while also creating better outcomes for people with mental health and addiction issues.

“What 30 years of practical application in Oregon showed is very rarely [are there] calls where the mobile crisis team response [will] actually need police support,” Chi said.

Huntington Beach plans to start diverting four types of calls to the mental health crisis response team, which they’re calling the “Hope van.” And the list may grow as officials learn more and adapt.

The first is “behavioral calls” – ones in which “someone is acting unusually or illogically. Or somebody is identifying that they have suicidal thoughts, or they’re looking to hurt themselves,” or their friend at school isn’t in a good place, Chi said.

The second is “public assistance calls” – like a homeless person laying on the side of street and looks unwell.

The third is “substance abuse calls” – in which someone is on drugs or suffering from addiction, or a parent calls and says their child is experiencing a substance abuse issue.

And the fourth type of call is “non-domestic violence family calls” which Chi said the city gets a lot of. Examples are someone calling because they or their neighbors are having a family issue and it escalates, not to the point of actual violence but does need for intervention, Chi said.

Instead of sending police to those calls, 9-1-1 would send the crisis response team, he said.

The city is now training its staff, including police, fire and 9-1-1 dispatchers, to prepare, Chi said. And the contractor providing the response teams – Mind OC – has hired a manager from the CAHOOTS program to help run the local crisis response program in OC.

When the program launches in late July, city officials plan to start out in an “incredibly protective way,” so if there’s any concerns about safety, the city would send police with the Hope van, Chi said.

“When you roll something out, it’s new and there’s a lot to learn,” he added.

But as city officials learn and improve the program, he added, they expect to see “the same [positive] results that have been found wherever this model has been done.”

Huntington Beach officials started exploring a new approach after studying how much police resources were being diverted to mental health calls that didn’t have a crime or public safety issue, Chi said.

“Every single day we’re deploying our police officers on … roughly on average 40 calls per day that are dealing with mental health, addiction or homelessness issues.”

Huntington Beach City Manager Oliver Chi

That translates to 14,500 calls for service each year, or about 10% of all calls in Huntington Beach, he said.

Because of the 911 infrastructure in the U.S., Chi said, “we’ve layered more and more responsibilities onto our officers. And really from a mental health perspective, every one of those mental health calls requires two police officers to respond, it takes on average 50 minutes to address that mental health call.”

Some calls can take three, four and even five hours to respond to, particularly when officers have to accompany people to a medical institution and wait there, he said.

“It’s frustrating for officers, too. Police officers are trained to see an issue, try to respond to the issue, and fix the issue – and move on to the next call.”

Plus, when someone has a mental health or addiction issue, or is homeless, “the nature of having an officer there in uniform will oftentimes raise the tension level, and I think will create outcomes that none of us are looking for.”

Nationwide, 25 percent of all fatal police encounters involve someone with mental illness, Chi said.

In some instances, the city will have to send police to mental health calls, Chi said.

“But for the vast majority of [mental health] calls, what the national data has shown…is 70 to 80% of the calls you do have don’t really have a public safety issue at hand.”

Huntington Beach officials plan on gathering data on what’s working and what’s not with the program, and reporting out updates every quarter.

“We’ll be taking a hard look at, does this move the needle,” Chi said. The types of data being measured include the number of calls deferred from police, fire, and paramedics; and whether there are better outcomes for people in crisis.

“If this model works, [we think] it will grow fairly quickly,” Chi said.

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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