Should police officers — instead of social workers — be responding to calls about a homeless person experiencing mental health issues or substance abuse problems? 

Civil rights advocates have said the answer is “No,” especially when they say law enforcement’s designed around criminalizing many of those people — to fatal outcomes, in some instances

Local police chiefs have also said mental health situations sometimes escalate when a uniformed police officer shows up. It also eats up a lot of officers’ time that could’ve been spent patrolling beats, some chiefs have said.

Yet, for many elected officials around the county, the argument never seemed to click.

Then, last week, Garden Grove City Council members unanimously approved their participation in a program that will — at least to some extent — take homeless and mental health-related 9-1-1 calls out of police officers’ hands and into the hands of a nonprofit with a campus located in Orange County. 

In doing so, the city joins Anaheim and Huntington Beach — two cities that have already moved forward with the idea — in possibly overhauling their public safety response.

Now, Garden Grove has approved a $1.3 million contract with Be Well OC, a mental health nonprofit with a hospital located in Orange. 

Ben Adam Climer, representing the nonprofit at Garden Grove’s May 25 council meeting, said Be Well OC would most commonly intervene in the types of calls known as “welfare checks,” which could deal with anything from calls about someone “sleeping in the park” to seeing “someone screaming at noone on the corner” of a street.

Part of the council’s vote included the approval of a mobile response team for the nonprofit to go around and respond to calls expeditiously. The non-emergency response team would consist of crisis workers paired with an EMT. 

“The crisis worker is there to manage someone who’s escalated, do some mediation, some sucide assessment — but what if that person seems to be intoxicated but they are actually just hypoglycemic? If they cut themselves, who’s going to bandage that up? That’s what the EMT is for,” Climer said. 

Not only would the nonprofit write referrals for people to get into shelters, Climer said, “we’re gonna help you get there.”

The nonprofit has a mental health campus in Orange, which features a crisis stabilization center for mental health needs and a “recovery station” for substance use disorders.

Garden Grove police estimated there’s roughly 14,500 calls, on average, that may be better handled by the nonprofit, said police chief Tom DaRe at the May 25 meeting.

“These calls can (normally) take officers out of the field for several hours causing them to sit idle at hospitals,” DaRe said, adding the partnership with Be Well OC would also decrease the police department’s liability. 

“A lot of times, when we do go out to these calls it’s the uniform that causes the reaction. Having this type of professional who can come in and handle nonviolent calls … is going to be a benefit and redirect my officers to handle crime issues,” DaRe said.

Climer said the crisis response workers will be diverse and patient with homeless people.

“The model is going to be centered on embedding staff who reflect this community’s diversity,” Climer said. “We’re not gonna go to somebody and fix them. We’re not gonna push our idea of what they need onto them. But rather, to sit with them, support them, and identify the things within themselves and the community and help them.”

Yet council members, like Stephanie Klopfenstein, still had questions that night, namely: What if seemingly nonviolent calls turn out to escalate to violent situations? 

“If something more dangerous should come on that particular call they’re on, when we talk about a person screaming at no one on the street, we know there’s an opportunity there for that to escalate into something that could be violent,” Klopfenstein said. 

DaRe said there will certainly be instances where officers are needed to backup and provide safety to the nonprofit team, though he emphasized it’s typically the presence of the officers that escalate things:

“When we go on scene, everything changes, because of the uniform.”

It’s the same thing that Huntington Beach Police Chief Julian Harvey told his council members in April, when they were about to move forward with the same program with Be Well OC. 

“The current state of affairs (without the program) is fairly staggering,” Harvey said, before noting about 10% of calls to police consist of mental health and homeless calls for service. “There is a tremendous need for mental health services. It is an epidemic in this country. And this is essentially a better model for those individuals to get better treatment in a non threatening way.”

Last December, Anaheim City Council members approved a similar, $2.5 million program with homeless services contractor CityNet that took effect in January to last six months with a possible extension. 

The Community Care Response Team, as it’s called, is where social workers take the lead.

“The core of our approach remains the same: To provide services to those living in homelessness in our city and, ultimately, a pathway to a better life,” said city spokesperson Lauren Gold, asked about the program in April. 

“Before, that was done with officers trained in homeless outreach, alongside civilian social workers,” Gold said. “Now, social workers take the lead on any call that does not involve public safety.”

Climer, at Garden Grove’s May 25 meeting, said the program isn’t just for the homeless:

“It’s anyone who’s experiencing some kind of crisis. Are they having suicidal ideation? Is it a family dispute where somebody’s being violent toward another and they just need a referee to manage that situation? These are all the types of people who receive services.” 

Climer, who was a crisis worker at the City of Eugene Oregon’s similar CAHOOTS program (which largely inspired the efforts by Anaheim, Huntington Beach and Garden Grove), said “it was really common or me to be assisting a person who was living on the street and then, 30 minutes later, I’d be in living room of one of wealthiest families in the city assisting their suicidal teenager.” 

“Everyone in the community, from living in a tent to a gated community, can receive these services.”

Nick Gerda contributed reporting.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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