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Mental health response in Fresno receives boost from Fresno City Council

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Mental health response in Fresno receives boost from Fresno City Council

Council approves County contribution to PD’s Crisis Intervention Team and learns about A-WASP, a tool designed to send a highly directional beam of sound towards targeted individuals when necessary.

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Chief Jerry Dyer last week shined a bright light on new methods we’re using to maintain social order in Fresno.

Council Members Garry Bredefeld and Luis Chavez assisted in the revelation.

It’s no knock on the three public servants to note that listening to them was a sobering experience.

At issue was the Feb. 15 City Council meeting. Dyer asked for official go-ahead to enter into an agreement with Fresno County and its Department of Behavioral Healthy.

As I wrote earlier for CVObserver, Police and Behavioral Health in September 2017 joined forces to create the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT). The idea is to have Behavioral Health experts and specially trained officers respond together to public safety incidents involving people with serious mental health problems.

About 40% of PD’s 9-1-1 calls for service involve people with mental health issues, according to a staff report. In the 12 months between June 1, 2016 and May 31, 2017, that turned out to be 26,698 calls dealing with some sort of public safety/mental health crisis.

The Crisis Intervention Team, with nearly six months under its belt, isn’t new to City Hall. The council’s chore last week was simply to authorize the next evolutionary step – accept $247,600 from the county to help fund a portion of PD’s needs through June 30, 2018.

All told, CIT is to operate at least through the 2021-2022 fiscal year. Total expected funding from county to PD: $1.34 million.

The CIT deal was on the council’s consent calendar. Bredefeld pulled the item. He asked the Chief to flesh out the issue.

“We’ve been looking at the number of calls for service that our officers respond to that have some type of mental health nexus,” Dyer said. “Upwards of 40%, depending on the policing district, have a mental health nexus. So, it made sense to create a special unit – a Crisis Intervention Team partnering with the Department of Behavioral Health. They’re clinicians as well as case managers.”

Dyer said CIT has a sergeant and four officers (the staff report said CIT could expand to eight officers). The county’s money will pay for things like equipment, vehicles (five white unmarked SUVs) and training. Officers and Fresno County clinicians/case managers currently work out of the same site.

The officers, Dyer said, “spend the needed time at that particular call, making sure that we use whatever de-escalation tactics that are available. The clinician has a co-response with us. The purpose is to de-escalate those situations and get those individuals the needed assistance.”

De-escalation, of course, might take considerable time. With CIT on the spot, patrol officers can return to what they do best.

The second piece of CIT, Dyer said, “is to look at those individuals who are the most frequent consumers of law enforcement use and target those individuals in a good way in terms of making sure they’re getting whatever service they need, making sure that they’re taking their medications so they’re not creating a burden for us.”

Dyer said PD has an excellent working relationship with Behavioral Health.

“We’re excited about the successes we’re already having with it in freeing up units out in the field and the fact that we really haven’t had a single incident that wasn’t able to be controlled simply by their presence,” Dyer said.

Bredefeld: “It sounds like a phenomenal program and it sounds like a very proactive program. I’m happy to support it.”

Bredefeld made the motion. Chavez provided the second.

Let’s pause here to chew on what the Chief said.

I realize that most Fresnans don’t hike through town to the extent that I do. But I’m sure that all of us in our local travels have come across people wandering around with obvious mental health challenges. I’m guessing that, to a degree, CIT focuses on these people when they cross a serious legal line.

Nearly 27,000 calls spread over a year means PD responds on average to 73 incidents per day involving someone with a mental health crisis.

CIT’s existence is proof that Fresno has a mental health crisis.

I assumed from Dyer’s comments that many, if not most, of those 73 daily calls involve the homeless. It was a comforting assumption. The homeless clearly are displaced persons of a sort. If only we could get them permanent housing and a few rehabilitative services, we think, then much of the problem would be solved and our social order much improved.

My comfort was dashed when Council Member Chavez asked Dyer to return to the public microphone. First, Chavez asked if many of the calls for service involved the same people.

Yes, Dyer said. These people, he said, are called “frequent consumers, those individuals that are repeat customers, people that we’re responding to on a sometimes weekly basis. When we can get them the services that they need – making sure that they’re taking their medication, put them on the radar for the Department of Behavioral Health and work with them – we can virtually eliminate, or at least minimize, having to return to that location.”

But it appears that another incident at another location always pops up or officials wouldn’t be talking about doubling CIT’s size.

Chavez then asked if most of the calls for service involve homeless people with mental health issues.

“The vast majority of those individuals are already in a home,” Dyer said. “They’re living with family or they’re living on their own. Occasionally we’ll see those individuals that are out on the street. We want to make sure that this isn’t in any way, shape or form specific to homeless or street people. This is dealing with calls for service that are generated, and the vast majority of them are going to be in a home or maybe an incident that occurs in a public place. But they have a residence.”

In other words, a solid roof over their heads isn’t enough to keep these people in line. Apparently, the clinicians/case managers and trained police officers of CIT do their best to defuse a particular incident, then return to their office while the troubled individuals return to their secure base of operations. The ticking time bomb is always there.

Finally, Chavez asked about the fate of people with mental health issues who are homeless. What can CIT do for them?

“Those individuals that are out on the street with a mental health crisis – that is a challenge for us,” Dyer said. “The options for us are to have them committed for a 72-hour hold under Welfare and Institution Code 5150 – a danger to themselves or others. But beyond that it’s really a challenge. If they don’t have housing and that ongoing care, then the likelihood is they’re going to be a repeat customer.”

Chavez was right to give PD and Behavioral Health a pat on the back.

“This is a great start, Chief,” Chavez said. “I want to thank you for the work that you’re doing with the county, with the school districts and all of our partners. You’re really revamping the way that we approach our Police Department in a great way.”

At the same time, my takeaway from the Dyer presentation is that our mental health-social order problem is intractable.

Still, I want to close with two hopeful notes.

First, 11 mayors of big California cities on Wednesday announced their support for Assembly Bill 3171. The bill would allocate $1.5 billion to address the homeless crisis across the state.

Fresno Mayor Lee Brand said in a written statement: “I am glad to join with my fellow mayors in a bipartisan effort to address this crisis. The problems and issues are different for every city in California and this proposal will help give our cities the resources they need to develop comprehensive, compassionate solutions.”

Second, Chief Dyer at his Feb. 15 council presentation said Crisis Intervention Team officers and clinicians/case managers would have a “unique” piece of equipment to help them when dealing with especially difficult people with mental health problems. The item is called an acoustic warning signal projector.

The acoustic warning signal projector, Dyer told the council, “can be narrowly focused on that individual for the purpose of de-escalation, a non-impact de-escalation to gain their compliance.”

The device’s brand name is A-WASP, a product of a British company called Cerberus Black. The A-WASP, says company literature, is capable “of projecting a highly directional beam of sound towards targeted individuals or small groups…. The sound is a complex waveform which employs psycho-acoustic principals to maximise the impression of intensity at the target, i.e. it seems a lot louder than it really is. This makes it possible to operate the devise within existing Health and Safety legislation in both the EU and North America.”

The Daily Mail, a British newspaper, did a story in 2014 on the A-WASP. The story quoted one person who volunteered to be the recipient of A-WASP’s punch.

“It looks like a comedy gun but the effect is certainly not funny at all,” the person said. “It felt like there was something inside my head. I felt a bit nauseous, and all I wanted to do was get away from it.”

Fresno’s Crisis Intervention Team is slated to buy two such devices at $14,000 each.

As I said at the beginning, we’re entering a new phase in Fresno’s mental health crisis.

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George Hostetter

George Hostetter is a contributor to CVObserver.

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