Police crisis team will look to find a better destination for mentally ill than jail

Fresno police and Fresno County Behavioral Health will partner to form a Crisis Intervention Team to decrease the number of mental health calls handled by police officers, and divert as many possible individuals away from the criminal justice system into treatment, officials announced Tuesday.

The crisis team plan, at least partially driven by a crushing number of mental health-related calls handled by police and allied agencies throughout the region, was introduced by Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer, Dawan Utecht of Fresno County’s Behavioral Health Department and Clovis City Councilwoman Lynne Ashbeck during a news conference at police headquarters.

Dyer underscored the need for a new approach to the emotionally disturbed by highlighting three explosive encounters between his officers and those with mental health issues in recent days, including the stabbing of one officer earlier Tuesday. In addition, another disturbed person smashed a glass door at police headquarters and an additional individual tried to gain entry into the police station.

Under the plan, a Fresno police sergeant and four officers will team with county behavioral health clinicians and case managers and use de-escalation techniques to defuse potentially violent confrontations with “individuals in crisis.” The officers will not wear normal police uniforms and eventually will drive plain cars in a bid to stay unconfrontational with those who might respond with anger to police, said Dyer. The team will operate out of a Fresno County building near Blackstone and Dakota avenues. In addition, all officers will undergo additional training on de-escalating confrontations and offer similar training to other Valley policing agencies.

Dyer said from June 2016 to June 2017, 27,000 calls to police involved “individuals in crisis.” He called the number “astounding.”

Ashbeck, of Community Conversations, a collaboration of community leaders, cited October of 2011 as a month when hospital emergency visits by the emotionally disturbed topped 1,000, a figure she called unsustainable. She took that as an inspiration to try a different approach.

She sought out other area organizations, including the Marjaree Mason domestic violence prevention center and California State University, Fresno, to get “lots of eyes on the solution.” As a start, she said, emergency calls are trending down by about 50 percent.

Utecht, of county Behavioral Health, said it was important to map how those in crisis navigate through the system — from the first 911 call all the way to possible incarceration. The goal is preventing a trip to jail.

Presently, Behavioral Health has two mental health workers who work with officers. That number will double to four under the plan.

Dyer said the the officers who will join the crisis team will come from the department’s Homeless Task Force, now headed by Sgt. Robert Dewey. That unit has gained valuable experience in dealing with those in crisis, the chief added.

Homeless issues will be divided among the department’s five policing districts.