Social workers over police.

It’s a concept that more and more Orange County cities are toying with when it comes to conducting outreach to people sleeping on the streets and avoiding violent conflicts that can start as soon as the first sight of a badge.

More than a decade after Fullerton landed in the national spotlight when six police officers beat and killed Kelly Thomas – a homeless man wrestling with mental health issues – a new pilot program might get some unhoused residents into programs and avoid police contact.

Supervisor Doug Chaffee told Fullerton City Council members last week that the county funded program could save the lives of people like Thomas.

“Instead of a police person going out, we would have sent a social worker to help with behavioral issues and Kelly might still be alive today,” he said during the July 18 council meeting.

Last Tuesday, Chaffee and Orange County Supervisors voted unanimously to put licensed clinical social workers right inside the Fullerton police department, as part of a two-year pilot program for $1 million.

Later that day, Fullerton City Council members unanimously voted at their own meeting to approve the program.

“Now, our city will have the opportunity to call a licensed clinical social worker by dialing 911. It’s really incredibly impactful and a wonderful thing that we can be doing,” Fullerton City Councilwoman Shana Charles said at the meeting. 

The social workers are expected to respond to mental health crisis calls, domestic violence calls or juvenile delinquency calls instead of police officers or alongside them. They will also provide mental health training to officers.

It’s the latest crack Fullerton officials have taken at the concept, sharing a regional resource center with Buena Park called Project HOPE, which focused social workers on non-police dispatch for homelessness related calls for service and opened its doors in November.

“It’s a different kind of model, we do have some models where social workers are provided by contract to cities, this is actually putting them in a police department,” said Chaffee at the board’s regular meeting on Tuesday.

“It may be a model for future cities to follow.”

Chaffee’s office is using discretionary funds to float the $1 million which will cover the cost of the social workers in Fullerton, as well as vehicles they’ll be using to reach people in need.

In recent years, Orange County cities like Huntington Beach, Garden Grove, Anaheim, Newport Beach, Irvine and – this year – Laguna Beach have partnered up with Be Well OC to respond to mental health and homelessness calls rather than police.

[Read: Even More OC Cities Join Movement to Switch Out Cops for Social Workers in Homeless, Mental Health Response]

Supervisor Vicente Sarmiento said at last Tuesday’s meeting that his home city, Santa Ana, has taken a similar approach and that while there are logistical challenges, the move will help keep both people and police safe.

“Not every call for service should be met with police,” he said.

Now the approach is expanding in Fullerton.

The two social workers will be part of the police department and provide mental health services to officers and consult with them about de-escalation policies.

“Fullerton also has a Hope Center, which is a desk dispatch point for social workers specializing in homeless people on the street. I anticipate these social workers, should they encounter a homeless person, will take care of immediate needs, and then make a referral to the Hope Center,” Chaffee said.

Chaffee expects the social workers will free up police officers to focus on issues and calls outside of homelessness – like break-ins and homicides – rather than detaining people experiencing a mental crisis and putting them in “5150” for up to three days.

“They’re taken off patrol typically to do that anywhere from three to eight hours, so I’m hoping that we can work with this. So the social workers involved will be able to do the 5150s,” he said.

Supervisors approved the program just weeks after a Superior Court Judge blocked Fullerton city officials from barring people from sleeping in their cars.

[Read: Judge Blocks Fullerton’s Anti RV Camping Law, For Now]

Earlier this year, the Sheriff’s department released a report that showed close to 400 homeless people died in 2021.

According to that report, 28 people died living on the streets in Fullerton.

The county’s 2022 point in time count shows that there were 272 homeless people in Fullerton last year and 202 of them were unsheltered.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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


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