Council Approves Agreement with County Mental Health Dept.
By Joe Taglieri
The Azusa City Council on Monday approved an agreement with the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health to launch a project aimed at helping police better handle incidents with a mental health component, of which the city has experienced a steady increase in recent years.
As the Azusa Police Department and law enforcement agencies throughout the county regularly deal with calls involving people with mental health issues, the need for improving public safety efforts has become increasingly evident.
To meet the growing demand for mental health evaluation in the field, the county has initiated the East San Gabriel Mental Evaluation Team, or ESGMET.
Similar to existing programs in place throughout the Los Angeles area teaming specially trained social workers with police – such as the Mental Health Department’s collaborations with Los Angeles County Sheriff’s stations and the Los Angeles, Alhambra and Burbank police departments – the ESGMET will pair local cops with a clinician tasked with making psychological assessments of individuals that officers encounter as a result of a 911 call.
The police officer-clinician tandem will “act as either the first or secondary responder to all mental health-related calls or contacts that have mental health underpinnings,” Azusa Police Chief Sam Gonzalez wrote in a staff report to the council.
Gonzalez revealed that last year his department responded to 374 calls that involved a mental health crisis.
“That seems high for one city,” Irma Castaneda, deputy director of the Mental Health Department’s Emergency Outreach Bureau, said in an interview in reference to Azusa’s tally of calls with a mental health concern.
“That is the very reason we want to enter into this [agreement] with neighboring agencies, that we can have better, longer-term solutions for those suffering with mental illness,” Gonzalez told the Beacon.
He recalled his early years as a patrol officer, noting the marked increase in mental health-related incidents.
“We had perhaps one or two calls a week, and as you can see it’s now daily,” Gonzalez said. “Over the last five or six years … in terms of our calls for service dealing with people suffering with mental health problems, the increase is steep. In my 32 years of experience here at Azusa PD, the number of calls for service that require an officer to have interaction with those suffering with mental illness is a stark difference from my day, on patrol in the ’80s, to our current situation.”
The chief projected the Mental Evaluation Team would start working in Azusa by the end of the month.
Azusa police personnel “have all received training on responses, evaluation, and resolution of calls involving mental health situations, but more is needed to ensure long-term solutions and better services to those persons and families that are impacted,” according to Gonzalez’s report.
“The purpose of the ESGMET is to provide cooperative, compassionate mental health/law enforcement teams to assist those in need of accessing mental health and social service programs,” the chief explained. “The goal is to provide better short-term and long-term solutions to the individual, their families, as well as the community.”
The clinician’s primary function is to advise officers on determining if an individual experiencing a mental health crisis is a danger to him- or herself and should be transported to a psychiatric facility via an ambulance or with police, Castaneda said.
“Not all of the crisis calls involve individuals needing to be hospitalized,” she pointed out. “It may be just needing to educate that family on how to get the kind of outpatient and medication services that will keep that individual from using the 911 system.”
Regardless of what city the clinician is based in on a particular day, the ESGMET will cross municipal boundaries and respond to incidents involving a mental health concern, Castaneda said.
The county covers the salary cost of the clinician, and the participating cities pay for officers’ staff time, documents show.
Gonzalez estimated the cost to the city would total about $1,000 a week.
A federal grant provides funding for mental evaluation teams, Castaneda said.
The Azusa portion of the program, including the clinician’s salary and additional overhead expenses, is $51,000 annually, said Miriam Brown, Mental Health Department clinical district chief.