Pilot program will send civilians to some mental health–related 911 calls

By Tess Kazenoff, Long Beach Post

The Long Beach Department of Health and Human Services is launching a community crisis response team this spring, in an effort to improve community health and safety.

The specialized non-law-enforcement team will respond to eligible 911 calls for service with a focus on behavioral health and quality-of-life issues, explained collective impact bureau manager Erica Valencia-Adachi.

The program is a result of the Framework for Reconciliation, adopted by the Long Beach City Council in June 2020 following the murder of George Floyd, and will begin as a pilot, introduced only to the West Police Division—an area of almost 13 square miles that includes the Port of Long Beach, the region west of the 710 Freeway and a large portion of Central Long Beach.

While it is unclear exactly why the West Police Division was selected for the pilot program, “it gives us an opportunity to really focus on one area of the city to build that trust,” said resource connections division officer Christina Boatwright.

One-time funds of just over $2 million are allotted to the pilot program, which will support about 18 months of work, according to Valencia-Adachi.

“The hope is to get some structural funding moving forward,” Valencia-Adachi said.

Training for the response team, which consists of a crisis intervention specialist, who is a licensed clinical social worker, a public health nurse and a peer navigator who can provide case management and connection to other resources such as shelters, is currently underway ahead of its spring launch. While the program plans to launch in April, a specific date has yet to be determined.

The response team will also be supported by two Health Department staff members.

The pilot program will operate Monday through Friday to ensure an overlap in hours with community partners, although its specific hours are still unknown, said Boatwright and Valencia-Adachi.

The City of Long Beach has looked at similar programs across the country such as in Durham, North Carolina, and Eugene, Oregon, to develop a model that would be effective in Long Beach, and community input has played an important role in determining the details of the Long Beach program, Boatwright said.

Development of the program also included collaboration between agencies across the city, including representation from the City Manager, Equity and City Prosecutor’s offices, along with the Long Beach Police, Fire, Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Communications and Library Services departments.

During community listening sessions held throughout 2022, community members vocalized the importance of ensuring that crisis response team staff are from Long Beach or the surrounding area and understand the city’s diversity.

“That is who we’ve hired,” Boatwright said. “It was very important for our team to understand that.”

While the program was initially known as the Alternative Crisis Response Team, it is now the Community Crisis Response Team following community feedback, Boatwright said.

Ensuring that the team is fully trained before stepping foot into the community, including on de-escalation techniques and how to provide compassionate and trauma-informed care, was also a priority, Boatwright said.

According to Valencia-Adachi, the crisis response team will be a way to enhance public safety while implementing a public health approach.

“There’s still stigma around mental health and asking for help,” said Valencia-Adachi. “It takes a lot for somebody to reach out and ask for help, and so we want to make sure that when people do, that we are responsive, and that we’re being as caring and compassionate as possible.”

According to Long Beach Police Department data, of 5,691 mental health-related calls made to the police in 2021, only 571 calls were considered a “violently mentally ill person,” while 5,120 were not considered violent. Complete data for 2022 was not available, but from 2012 to 2021, the number of mental health-related calls climbed each year.

While the team will be unable to respond to any calls involving violence, weaponry or medical emergencies, it will be able to provide care in times of crisis, including calls regarding public intoxication, possible trespassing and welfare checks, along with a connection to ongoing care.

Boatwright estimates that the team will be able to answer four or five calls per day, although it depends on the nature of each call, she said.

“But we’re also OK with one or two calls early on as we pilot this, so that we learn as we go to ensure that we’re providing the right types of support for callers,” Boatwright said.

Although Black people only make up about 12% of Long Beach’s population, from 2016 to 2019, 38% of the most serious uses of police force were against Black people, according to a statewide database.

A spokesperson for the Long Beach Police Department, though, said it is equipped to appropriately respond to mental health-related calls, citing mental health-related training and initiatives designed specifically to support and resolve calls involving a person experiencing a mental health crisis, such as a Mental Evaluation Team and Integrated Medical Response Program.

“We will always be open to working collaboratively with any service that provides our community members with the best possible care and support they need,” the spokesperson said in an email. “Ultimately, the effectiveness and impact of this new program will be determined by the outcomes achieved and feedback from the community.”

Apart from a nationwide push for police accountability, the need for mental health services has only increased since the pandemic; a stark increase in mental health needs among youth and the city’s unhoused population is particularly troubling, Long Beach Health Department Director Kelly Colopy told the Business Journal in October.

According to CalMatters, between 2016 and 2020, California’s National Suicide Prevention Lifeline call centers experienced a 67% increase in calls.

For Melissa Morgan, a member of Black Lives Matter and communications director for Long Beach Forward (whose work with the People’s Budget Coalition calls for reallocating funding from police and directing it toward other community resources), it has become clear that there are community members more equipped to handle mental health crises than police, she said.

“I have really begun to embrace and understand how we keep each other safe as a community,” Morgan said. “There are professionals in the community who are not police, who have incredible skill and ability to respond to issues of crisis and community where they don’t need weapons.”

A crisis response team is an important first step in the right direction, Morgan said.

But while Morgan looks forward to seeing how the program rolls out, she has concerns that the hours will not be enough to provide access when there is a real need for support, she said.

“Likely, the majority of these folks who they’re responding to are going to be people of color or poor people,” she said. “If those sitting leaders really prioritize this work, (the crisis response team) would be 24/7, absolutely, and it would be fully funded.”

Morgan hopes that funding will be sustainable going forward and that the program will be able to expand from just the West Police Division and respond to more calls, she said.

“Certainly there are needs all across the city,” Morgan said. “So I know we’ll be keeping our eyes open to see when they’ll be expanding out into other areas of the community.”

In order for there to be truly impactful change, values within the city need to change, and ultimately, the Health Department needs to be considered a higher priority, Morgan said, noting that the Police Department receives a large part of the city’s budget every year.

The Health Department has “to look for grant funding continually to be able to help their programs to survive and thrive,” Morgan said. “It’s not a secret … what departments the city values and doesn’t value, and that’s quite often laced with racism.”

Morgan referenced the Be Well OC Mobile Crisis Response Team, where mental health care workers respond to mental health and substance abuse issues and are able to transport patients to facilities throughout the county.

“It’s just a beautiful model,” Morgan said. “I hope that Long Beach at some point will look into funding to create some of those health care centers.”

During a community meeting regarding the crisis response team, Morgan was struck by the realization that within her diversity, social justice and civil rights field, there is the hope that eventually that type of work won’t be needed.

“We want to do the work and support community so badly that in the end, there wouldn’t be racism or discrimination or hate crimes, that we’d be putting ourselves out of work,” Morgan said. “We would do whatever it takes to do that, and I think that police need to take that same mindset, they need to care so much about serving the community that they want to put themselves out of a job.”

Boatwright and Valencia-Adachi acknowledge that gaining the community’s trust can be a challenge, and it can take time to develop.

“We know that need is out there, we just want people to trust us,” Boatwright said. “And we know that takes time. And that takes work. And so we’re really excited about this team, because they’re very focused on building relationships.”

Morgan hopes to see police responding to a significantly reduced number of calls for service, to see support from the police, and for the city to truly embrace community voices in informing how to care for one another, she said.

“The source, the root of policing, is very destructive,” Morgan said. “Anytime you can bring community together to care for one another, wonderful things can happen there.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Christina Boatwright’s last name, and the headline has been updated to clarify which calls will be impacted.

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