Author – Sergeant Angela Voorhees, California State University Northridge
Thirty years ago, the state of California drastically cut back its services in hospitals for individuals with severe mental illness. The impact of this decision resulted in thousands of individuals living on the streets; homeless and incapable of caring for themselves, (Mental Health Services Act, 2013). Unfortunately, the populations of homeless and mentally ill residing in communities across California have continued to increase while minimal progress has been made in combatting the consequences of those cutbacks. “Approximately one-third of the homeless population in the US experiences severe mental illness and many homeless people lack access to mental health services, particularly in California, where a series of programs have gutted county and regional agencies,” (Guardian, 2011). Today many individuals experience homelessness and continue to physically and mentally deteriorate on the streets of California suffering from untreated mental illness leaving the burden of care for these individuals to law enforcement officers, fire departments, and emergency care providers.
Regrettably, there has been negligible legislation passed to improve the issues and the conditions for those living on the streets. In November 2004, Proposition 63 (the Mental Health Services Act, MHSA) passed with significant voter approval. The Mental Health Services Act provided the first opportunity in several years for the Department of Mental Health (DMH) to provide increased funding, personnel, and other resources supporting county mental health programs. The purpose of the MHSA was to address prevention and early intervention in concert with improved infrastructure, technology, and training, (MHSA, 2017); however, as the years have passed, the state has faltered on its commitments to the mentally ill, and daily, law enforcement faces compounded challenges of a rising epidemic of mental illness policing.
Each year, two million jail bookings nationwide involve a person with mental illness and one in four people killed in officer-involved shootings has a serious mental illness. These numbers expose a sad truth: with the continued failing of the virtually non-existent mental health system in California, law enforcement agencies have increasingly become first responders to individuals experiencing a mental health crisis (NAMI, 2017). The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) recommends Crisis Intervention Teams bringing together community members, mental health providers, and law enforcement to better respond to mental health crisis calls for service. Many cities and counties are capitalizing on the concepts of collaboration and partnerships; creating their version of a crisis or mental health team based on the unique needs and demographics in the communities they serve.
Culver City and Beverly Hills are bustling cities located in the heart of West Los Angeles. Recently, representatives from these two neighboring police departments shared their approach to tackling the issues of homelessness and the untreated mentally ill populations residing in their cities. These cities have developed partnerships on many things including, but not limited to: training, investigations, crowd control and mutual aid; however, their differing approaches to creating a mental health team is unique to their population, demographics and available resources.
The City of Culver City is approximately five square miles with an estimated population of 40,000 people. Affectionately known as The Heart of Screenland, Culver City is home to Sony Pictures and Culver Studios. Due to its proximity to the Venice Beach area, it’s diverse in both food and culture. With the recent addition of the Los Angeles Metro Expo Line, Culver City has seen an increase in its homeless and mentally ill population.
Culver City Police Department’s efforts to address calls for service involving the homeless and mentally ill population residing in their community is through partnership. By Culver City Police Department fulfilling the partnership requirement of providing one trained and experienced officer to respond to mental health related calls, office space, a telephone extension, and an officer with a minimum of 8 hours of mental health training for a doctor of psychology; the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health provided Dr. Dan Richardson, whose position is funded by the county, to be a member of the Culver City Police Department’s Mental Health Team. Affectionately known as Dr. Dan, Richardson is assigned to the Culver City Police Department three days a week for ten hours a day. As explained by Police Chief Scott Bixby, by partnering with the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, he was enabled to establish a mental health team.
Currently, the police department has one full-time police officer, Officer Jason Martin. Officer Martin has completed the mandatory training requirement in addition; 40-hour training with the Los Angeles Police Department’s System-Wide Mental Assessment Response Team (SMART) team, and a 40-hour course on crisis negotiation with the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI).
The Culver City Mental Health Team responds to calls for service involving the mentally ill; however, Officer Martin and Dr. Richardson have also labored relentlessly in their pursuit of partnerships within the community. By developing partnerships with Exodus (a 23-hour commitment facility dedicated to stabilization), Didi Hirsch (mental health and substance abuse treatment centers with 10 locations serving greater southern California), and the Veterans Association (VA); Officer Martin and Dr. Richardson have expanded their abilities to assist several clients with voluntary commitment/ treatment and effective transition plans. Officer Martin quickly gives accolades to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) as the greatest asset he relies on in his day-to-day contacts with mentally ill subjects. NAMI works closely with families of those subjects who are mentally ill, and assists the Culver City Police Department in supporting and educating their clients.
Without a doubt, the success of the Culver City Mental Health Team resides on the foundation of partnerships. By collaborating resources and maintaining relationships with the families and caregivers of the mentally ill living in the city, the mental health team is experiencing the fruit of their labor: direct contact, follow-up, and progress in obtaining subsequent treatment for the mentally ill residing in their communities. The success of the mental health team relies on participatory commitments from officers who are trained to recognize mental illnesses and how these illnesses manifest themselves. Officer Martin’s training and education has greatly enhanced his ability to recognize and communicate with those suffering from untreated mental illness. In addition to the commitment to their officers, the Culver City Police Department relies on collaboration with local facilities that are staffed with professionals willing to accept voluntary commitments, partnered faith-based organizations and most importantly, their community members as a whole who recognize mental illness as a health condition that requires compassionate, consistent treatment and awareness.
The City of Beverly Hills is world-renown for their homes of Hollywood’s rich and famous, celebrity sightings, and designer fashion boutiques located on Rodeo Drive just to mention a few icons. Beverly Hills is a close neighbor to Culver City and despite its wealth, faces distinct challenges in addressing the homeless and mentally ill subjects who reside there. The homeless population in Beverly Hills is mainly comprised of older adults who are attracted to the city because they feel it is safe. They perceive the two million square feet of parking garages as secure sheltered areas where they can sleep in relative peace.
Social worker and Beverly Hills Human Services Administrator Jim Latta shares the challenges the City of Beverly Hills experiences with their homeless and mentally ill population with a multi-tiered collaboration approach. With over 20 years of experience working with the mentally ill and homeless populations, Latta is passionate about helping those in need and assuring that no one is left to languish on the streets of Beverly Hills. Latta was initially attracted to Beverly Hills because of the city’s resources with the business owners and residents who productively confront issues involving the homeless and mentally ill.
Latta partners with the Beverly Hills Police Department, Beverly Hills Fire Department, the Beverly Hills Ambassadors, local churches, local businesses and two outreach workers from Step Up on Second (an organization dedicated to assisting mentally ill clients back into the community), and to effectively reach out and combat the untreated mentally ill, and homeless subjects residing in the city. Recognizing garage camping as a nexus to creating the lack of adequate restroom facilities for its shoppers that heighten the potential for municipal code violations; the city created the Beverly Hills Ambassadors.
The Beverly Hills Ambassadors work with the police department and business owners by patrolling reported problem areas in business improvement districts such as the parking structure in the business triangle. The Ambassadors maintain high visibility and disseminate crucial information at monthly meetings with a representative from the police department, the fire department, and the city prosecutor’s office. Jim Latta and his team escort the Ambassadors on a regular basis to consistently analyze the effectiveness of the program and to make direct contact with the mentally ill living on the streets of Beverly Hills.
The Ambassadors are on patrol seven days a week for 21 hours a day. The provided service is a crucial component in achieving the city’s goals: contact and identify homeless and mentally ill persons residing in Beverly Hills; notify them of the services available in the city; confirm beds are available at local outreach establishments; set the standard of acceptable behavior; and liaison with the police department, fire department, and city prosecutor.
Although Culver City and Beverly Hills used different approaches in creating their mental health teams, they each experience success and have improved the quality of life for those legislation seems to have forgotten. As demonstrated above, mental health teams can be comprised of a few or many components. The potential for creating a mental health team lies within each municipality and county agency. Collaboration with mental health care professionals and partnerships with mental health care providers is essential for long-term success. Both Culver City and Beverly Hills collect and monitor calls for service involving mentally ill and homeless individuals. As Culver City Police Officer Jason Martin stated, “We weren’t surprised about the number of mental health calls for service, but we did not realize how many of our calls for service (not categorized as mental health calls) had a mental health component to them.”
The scope of issues facing the mentally ill in our communities is much broader than the resolutions we as law enforcement professionals provide. To assist those with such great need, law enforcement agencies must be creative, think innovatively and work with the resources available to them. Suffice it to say; there could be many pages authored and many examples provided on creating a mental health or crisis team. As Beverly Hill Police Department Captain Mark Miner states, “We have helped with services as well as transportation to get people the help they need. Many as you know refuse help, but we also discuss enforcement issues as they arise. It’s a collaborative and multi-pronged approach to homelessness and mental health issues.” A multi-pronged approach indeed and a worthwhile endeavor that exemplifies what it means to protect and serve.
Mental Health Services Act. (n.d.). Retrieved May 12, 2017, from http://www.dhcs.ca.gov/services/mh/Pages/MH_Prop63.aspx
Law Enforcement and Mental Health. (n.d.). Retrieved May 12, 2017, from https://www.nami.org/Get-Involved/Law-Enforcement-and-Mental-Health
Smith, S. (2011, August 09). California’s hidden mental health crisis | SE Smith. Retrieved May 12, 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/cifamerica/2011/aug/09/california-mental-health-kelly-thomas