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'Caught off guard.' Sacramento County delays plan for mental health strike teams

Sacramento Bee - 2/25/2021

Feb. 25—A long-awaited plan to replace law enforcement with a team of counselors to address mental health calls in Sacramento County will be delayed for at least a month while officials discuss the plan with local law enforcement and consider expanding the pilot project.

The Sacramento County Board of Supervisors unanimously agreed late Wednesday to delay voting on the program, which would have created four, two-person teams that would respond to mental health and substance abuse calls fielded into an emergency phone number separate from 911.

The alternative to 911 project was first advanced by Supervisor Patrick Kennedy after the wave of protests over racial injustice last summer and widespread criticism of the outsize share of county money funneled into the Sacramento County Sheriff's Office.

Using programs created in Eugene, Ore., and Denver as a model, county officials set out to create a similar endeavor here. Since September, they have been pulling together the basic elements of the pilot program, holding public town hall meetings online and meeting privately with other stakeholders.

In its first reckoning with the public, the plan faced criticism from social justice activists and law enforcement leaders. Police chiefs complained that they were not sufficiently included. Reform advocates said the $1.6 million pilot project does not go far enough to address the county's needs.

Most of the public criticism focused on the scope of the program, which was expected to operate five days a week between the hours of 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. Others suggested adding a community advisory board.

"This (program) needs adequate funding — an anchor on the low end being $15 million," said Flojaune Cofer, an epidemiologist and who directs policy at the nonprofit Public Health Advocates.

"The (program) needs adequate funding to provide 24-hour services," Cofer said. "When the data was presented earlier they were presented from January to June of 2020. It's important to note that three months of that time were when we were in the early days of COVID-19 response and our usual trends were significantly (interrupted)."

By the end of an hour and a half of public comments, Supervisor Kennedy appeared frustrated.

"What I want to do is identify what our needs are and where we want to get. Don't find a number and pull it out of the air and back into it. At that point, we decide as a board and as a community if our priorities are

"I don't want to start with a number," Kennedy said. "What I want to do is find a program that meets the needs of this community, determine how much that costs and then have that discussion."

The program was expected to start in July but Kennedy requested county staff examine what it would cost to operate the team for 8 hours, 16 hours and 24 hours and report back to the Board of Supervisors on March 23.

Police chiefs 'caught off guard'

The proposal also faced scrutiny from the area's police chiefs.

Speaking on behalf of police chiefs in Sacramento, Folsom, Elk Grove and Galt, Ronald Lawrence, the police chief for Citrus Heights, said they held an emergency meeting this week to discuss the item but were "caught off guard" by the project.

"Unfortunately, as one of the largest stakeholders to the issues of government response to residents suffering from mental health crises as well as homeless issues in our community, all of the police chiefs in our county were completely caught off guard by this item and in fact, we only learned about this pilot project just in the past couple of days."

They still don't know how it will affect those municipalities, Lawrence said. But many do not support expanding the program to include crimes or crimes in progress that includes domestic disturbances, he said.

"To be clear, the police chiefs are open to alternatives to a police response to non-criminal, non-violent calls dealing with existing mental illness and homelessness," Lawrence said. "But we have far too many questions at this point to support this pilot."

He said last year, Citrus Heights, saw some 348 mental health-related calls and 3,037 homeless-related calls for service. Equally important, Lawrence said, is the need for adequate bed space and long-term programs to assist the vulnerable population with their mental health or addiction issues.

"As a police chief, before I hand over those types of calls to some other entity to make sure the quality is where we expect it to be in Citrus Heights, I need to make real sure this is something that we're working on together," Lawrence said. "Something of this magnitude requires social services and law enforcement to work closely together in partnership and as teams."

'I was pretty disappointed to see the proposal put forth'

Many of the public speakers were adamant that the additional money used to fund the program comes from the sheriff's department budget. The agency routinely has about $4 million unspent every year, some speakers said, that should be used to support the alternative program.

Their call harkens back to a recent push to invest in social services instead of funding law enforcement agencies that have been recast into the roles of social workers and psychologists.

"I was pretty disappointed to see the proposal put forth. I always try and see if this county can be bold in terms of addressing the needs of people who are the most vulnerable and in crisis. The staff's proposal was just very lackluster and kind of the bare minimum," said Kula Koenig, a resident and founder of the community organization Social Justice Politicorps.

"Similar to when we called in on the sheriff's civilian oversight commission (proposal); really wanting a bold move for the safety of our community and taking money away from law enforcement which is not making us safer."

Kennedy, who took most of the comments on the chin, did not dismiss the idea of redirecting funds. A broader mental health program that operates every day will likely cost the county more money.

"I don't see how we can do a program where there isn't some money coming out of the sheriff's budget. How much? I don't know. I'm not going to speculate but the reality is, that is a considerable chunk of our general fund," Kennedy said.

"To say that we're just going to keep that as a sacred cow? There are no sacred cows. We have to look at all alternatives."


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