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Rules of engagement shifting for police and homeless and mentally ill

The OC Sheriff's Department and the Health Care Agency have created a new screening process to help people in crisis and focus police work on crime.

In this 2018 file photo,  a man chats with Orange County Sheriff deputies at the homeless encampment along the Santa Ana River in Anaheim. 
Starting this month, a fresh screening procedure has been implemented with the goal of redirecting non-crime-related calls related to mental illness and homelessness away from the Sheriff’s Department and towards trained specialists within the Orange County Health Agency.  (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)
In this 2018 file photo, a man chats with Orange County Sheriff deputies at the homeless encampment along the Santa Ana River in Anaheim. Starting this month, a fresh screening procedure has been implemented with the goal of redirecting non-crime-related calls related to mental illness and homelessness away from the Sheriff’s Department and towards trained specialists within the Orange County Health Agency. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)
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As of this month, if you call 911 and want help from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, you might be asked to take a brief quiz:

“Is the person you’re calling about in immediate danger or creating a safety hazard?”

“Are they committing a crime?”

“Are there weapons involved?”

Answering yes or no to these and a few similar questions will determine if a deputy or a mental health expert will respond to the call. The new screening process is part of a broader, coordinated push from the Sheriff’s Department and the Orange County Health Care Agency to focus police work on traditional crime and social work on helping people who are in crisis.

In one sense, the dual-track response system is just the latest step in a long-running effort by the county’s biggest police agency, and county health officials, to segregate criminal issues and social issues in ways that could benefit all members of the community. Several years ago, , which includes three sergeants, a dozen or more deputies and up to 40 civilian mental health workers who respond, in tandem, to calls related to mental illness. It’s unclear if that bureau will expand or respond to more calls, but it’s not expected to be reduced as a result of the new 911-based screening process.

“I think, to the public, this could seem like a big change. But we’ve always worked closely with the Sheriff’s Department,” said Veronica Kelley, who heads the OC Health Care Agency’s Behavioral Health Division, which now includes the newly created OC Links, a unit that connects people in crisis to counselors or other service providers.

Kelley, who noted people from her agency worked with sheriff’s deputies to create the 911 “decision tree” screening questions, said county mental health workers have embedded with police agencies for several years to help reduce violence by or against law enforcement.

“The instinct for everyone, when something happens, is to call 911, and have the cops come first. But they’re not (mental health) clinicians,” Kelley said.

“They get training, they learn how to de-escalate. But as we’ve seen throughout the country, sometimes interaction involving someone in mental crisis and police can result in violence,” she added.

“That impacts individuals, on both sides.”

Crazy quilt response

However the new screening program affects people in crisis, or deputy safety, it also reflects the increasingly divergent ways communities and law enforcement agencies throughout California are dealing with the unhoused and mentally ill.

Since 2021, an independent nonprofit that provides mental health experts to help officers when they’re working with the homeless and the mentally ill. And, nationally, many of the nation’s biggest police forces – in New York, Philadelphia and Dallas, among others – have beefed up staff and training to reduce violence involving the mentally ill without necessarily arresting and incarcerating more people.

Yet, amidst all of that, a counter-trend has emerged. In the past 18 months several cities that had reputations for responding to social crimes with either little police response or none at all, have changed their tune.

In San Francisco – widely viewed as the most liberal city in America – the Police Department late last year directed officers to enforce laws against camping or sleeping in public, at least when the people involved have some access to a shelter bed.

Since late 2021, police in some parts of Los Angeles have stepped up enforcement of 41.18, an ordinance that says people can be fined or even jailed for sitting, lying, sleeping or setting up personal property on city-owned sidewalks.

And last year, in Santa Ana, crimes that many view as synonymous with homelessness and mental illness, including public intoxication, exposure and disturbing the peace.

“It wasn’t a new policy, per se. It was just a directive to stop neglecting certain types of criminal behavior,” said Santa Ana Councilmember Phil Bacerra, an urban planner who was elected in 2019 after telling voters he’d urge a tougher stance on how the city handles homelessness issues.

“Homelessness is not a crime. We’re not medieval England,” Bacerra said. “But a crime is a crime. And in Santa Ana all crimes are subject to law enforcement.”

Bacerra said the city’s approach involves both stick and carrot. While , for example, they also are urged to offer people ways to get sober or to find shelter.

“This community is compassionate. We have more shelter beds and services than anybody in the county. But a lot of people have been frustrated, too.”

Still, it’s unclear how – or if – the city’s tougher stance has affected homelessness. Bacerra said a recent census of the homeless, the every-two-years Point in Time count, will tell if the numbers are going up or down in Santa Ana.

“Nobody thinks we can arrest ourselves out of a problem,” Bacerra said. “But there’s nuance to this. And, ultimately, public safety is paramount.”

Less contact, less conflict

That new 911 quiz could affect a lot of lives.

The Sheriff’s Department provides police services for 13 cities and unincorporated Orange County, covering roughly a quarter of the county’s 3.1 million residents. Every year, dispatchers gets about 10,000 calls related to mental health issues and the unhoused.

While it’s too early to know how many of those calls will be diverted to county health workers, experts of all political stripes say keeping police focused on traditional crime and is more effective for residents and cheaper for taxpayers.

“I think it’ll be potentially life saving and also save the county money,” said Eve Garrow, a senior policy analyst with the ACLU of Southern California who focuses on homeless issues.

“If law enforcement is not required, then it should not be deployed.”

That said, the screening isn’t expected to immediately reduce the number of deputies sent to help people seeking it.

Answering “yes” to any of the half dozen questions posed by dispatchers will result in a deputy being sent to a scene. Likewise, any call sent to OC Link – where civilian mental health workers start the process of figuring out how to respond and help the caller – can be sent back to the Sheriff’s Department if the county health worker feel that’s warranted. Even the caller’s tone of voice can be cited by a dispatcher as a reason for requesting a law enforcement response.

“Deputies will still be involved at the same level,” said Sheriff Department spokesman Sgt. Frank Gonzalez.

“Our deputies are trained to handle, and welcome, all kinds of calls and situations.”

But if the new screening can direct deputies away from non-criminal issues and toward other issues connected to safety, Gonzalez suggested a goal will be met.

“Our basic mission is to protect the community,” he said. “We’ll go down any appropriate path, or any direction, to do that.”

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