Sacramento County wants to hear from the public about non-police responses to mental health crisis calls.
It’s an issue that activists have been pushing for years. They say when someone is behaving erratically due to a mental illness, the sight of uniformed and armed officers can escalate the situation to a dangerous degree.
“You can’t send people in with weapons, who have a lot of preconceived notions about people with mental health, people of color, people who may be poor or unhoused,” said Faye Wilson Kennedy, who works with a Sacramento advocacy group called the Poor People’s Campaign. “It’s like you’re asking for trouble.”
There have been several instances when Sacramento law enforcement agents injured or killed an individual after responding to mental health crises. Perhaps the most notable was the 2016 death of Joseph Mann. Neighbors called police after seeing Mann waving a knife on the street. The responding officers attempted to hit him with their vehicle before shooting him 14 times.
Now, some Sacramento County officials say they’re ready to start creating an alternative response, such as a team of social workers and medical personnel that could respond to these types of calls.
The county held two virtual public listening sessions on the topic on Oct. 29 and Nov. 4. Bruce Wagstaff, deputy county executive for social services, says more than 180 people participated. They’ve also released an online survey where people can share their ideas for solutions until Friday. Nov. 13.
“It’s critical on something like this that we reach out to the community and get their input,” Wagstaff said. “This is a very significant and sensitive issue in the community, and you really can’t develop something like this without that kind of outreach.”
Supervisor Patrick Kennedy brought the idea up at a Sept. 10 board meeting, and proposed allocating $1.5 million to an alternative response. The goal is to “increase mental health response to calls for service; decrease law enforcement need to respond to mental health distress, crisis or other quality of life issues; decrease unnecessary emergency department visits and psychiatric hospitalizations; and decrease relapse into crisis by linking to ongoing outpatient mental health services,” according to a county press release.
Wagstaff says so far they’ve heard requests for a team made up of licensed mental health professionals and medical personnel, and for a dispatch line that is separate from 911 for people to call. The Sacramento City Council approved this change in July as part of a police reform package. But it will not go into effect for two years as the city works to create a new department to handle the calls.
“You have to consider the type of training that’s involved, so somebody knows what to do when a call comes in and they can make the appropriate referral,” Wagstaff said. “Those are the kinds of things you really have to make sure you concentrate on.”
There’s already a local model for this type of work. The M.H. First team, a project of the Sacramento Anti Police-Terror Project, has been running a grassroots crisis response team out of an Oak Park clinic since January. Their line — 916-670-4062 — is open 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Friday through Sunday.
Asantewaa Boykin, a registered nurse and founding member of the team, says she’s concerned the county will try to add community members to existing systems involving law enforcement, instead of removing law enforcement from the equation.
She says the ideal solution would be taking money out of law enforcement budgets and funneling it toward community organizations trained to intervene in mental health crises.
“I’d like to see a commitment from them to take it from the sheriff’s [budget],” she said. “Give us the money you don’t need to do the work you don’t want to do.”
Wagstaff and his team plan to take community input until December and bring a formal proposal for a pilot program to the board in February.
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