September 28, 2023

Lenny Marcus got home from work one night roughly six years ago to find his adult son incoherent, sitting on the floor of his Goleta home surrounded by his own vomit.

Marcus remembered how his son, who was 24 at the time, could barely talk; he knew they would have to go to the hospital to get his son’s stomach pumped.

At some point before driving to the hospital, law enforcement arrived and demanded that deputies drive him to the hospital instead of his family taking him.

“My son was drunk out of his mind, he was saying inappropriate things, and the police got mad at him,” Marcus remembered about that night.

Law enforcement officers did eventually agree to follow the family to the hospital, he said.

“They followed us to the hospital, and the policeman was very inappropriate,” Marcus said. “Eventually, the hospital staff told the officer that he had to wait outside because he was making problems between my son and the staff.”

Marcus said deputies have responded multiple times to his house in Winchester Canyon, seeing a problem with his mentally ill son’s behavior when his son didn’t comprehend that there was a problem himself.

“My wife was scared to death of calling the police because she was scared they were going to come and shoot my son,” he said. “You read about it in the paper all the time, where people are being shot by the police because they don’t realize that they are mentally ill.

“Something that a mentally ill person thinks isn’t a problem, the police think it is.”

This instance was before Marcus took a National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) class, and learned about Santa Barbara County’s co-response teams, which pair a Department of Behavioral Wellness clinician with a specifically trained law enforcement deputy to respond to mental health crisis-related 9-1-1 calls.

“Co-response is the single best thing that the county has ever done in my mind,” Marcus said. “I’m a huge believer in it. In my mind, it is the one thing that the county has gotten right when it comes to mental illness.”

The co-response team began as a pilot program in 2018 and has been so successful that, with grant funding for the pilot program running out in October, the county decided to not only continue funding it permanently, but to increase the staffing to three teams.

In the co-response model, the deputy and the clinician work together for a 10-hour shift and respond to crisis calls with the goal of preventing unnecessary hospitalizations or arrests for mentally ill people during times of crisis.

“If a call comes in that sounds like it’s mental health and not a crime, the team starts engaging with the individual to figure out what’s going on,” said Toni Navarro, director of the Department of Behavioral Wellness.

“They work with the individual to take them to a shelter, take them home, and make sure that those individuals don’t go to jail.”

The teams have responded to 1,707 calls since the beginning of 2020. Only 3% led to arrests, according to data obtained by Noozhawk.

Of the calls that the teams responded to, 28% were instances in which the individual had an arrestable offense. Of the total calls that the teams responded to, 96% were diverted from arrest.

“Our goal here is to help them,” Navarro said. “For 40 years without this collaboration, people with a co-curring disorder or mental illness have been jailed too many times.”

The co-response teams have responded to the Marcus household multiple times since the family learned about the program. One time, Marcus’ son was having a “real meltdown” in his room, taking a bat to the walls and screaming at the top of his lungs.

“So I called 9-1-1 and asked for a co-response team,” he said. “They came in three police cars, they talked to (my wife and me) in the dining room and talked to my son outside.

“They essentially just talked him down. They knew how to reason with him and how to get him help.”

The program isn’t just about diverting people from jail when possible, but diverting them from the criminal justice system as a whole and rerouting them to the appropriate resources.

Just over 35% of co-response team encounters were proactive engagement and follow-up with people who have a history of mental illness.

“We might have a 15-year-old that threatened a school shooting, and what we might do is have a team go out two days a week and play basketball with them,” said Dr. Cherylynn Lee, manager of the Sheriff’s Department Behavioral Sciences Unit.

“We’ve patchworked this incredible, evidence-based, reasonable program and adopted it into our community to make it work. Our mission is not to punish people for being mentally ill, our mission is to provide support so they can live their lives outside of the mental health system.”

While the co-response teams have been a proven success in Santa Barbara County, the behavioral wellness and sheriff’s departments had to learn to mesh the two different cultures to build that working relationship.

“Law enforcement and behavioral health departments have different cultures, so we really had to learn how to work with someone of a different culture,” said John Winckler, division chief of crisis services at the Department of Behavioral Wellness.

“As the relationships have been built, we in the mental health side are really learning how to better communicate with law enforcement so it doesn’t just feel like we’re riding in someone’s car — we’re in the car together.”

The mission of law enforcement is public safety, and the mission of behavioral wellness is personal safety, Lee explained, adding that sometimes those things conflict.

“Behavioral health tends to be focused on the person, law enforcement focuses on the situation and the world around them,” she said. “There would be some butting heads, but now we can agree to disagree, whereas before we would just disagree.”

“There is constant back and forth and learning and growing between the teams, but we truly need each other to be effective. It’s really encouraging because you have psychologists talking and cops talking, and we’re starting to use the same languages. We are light years ahead of where most agencies and counties and communities are.”

Because there aren’t enough co-response teams for 24/7 coverage, the Department of Behavioral Wellness is looking at ways to expand the program, and hopes to add a fourth team in the near future, said Suzanne Grimmesey, a department spokeswoman.

In some jurisdictions in California, the co-response team also includes firefighters and paramedics, which is something that the Department of Behavioral Wellness is exploring for Santa Barbara County, said John Doyel, assistant director of the department.

Some communities have taken law enforcement out of the co-response model entirely, but that is not something that the Department of Behavioral Wellness sees happening here.

“I would not take law enforcement out of a co-response model,” Navarro said. “In Santa Barbara that is not going to happen, because I really do see the safety value of having law enforcement around.

“Law enforcement is receiving a lot of training around signs and symptoms and how to divert people.”

Lee agrees.

“I don’t think the partnership is ever going to be perfect, and I don’t think it should be,” she said. “But the fact that we are doing it together is embedded in the community, in the stories, and the letters, and the thank-you notes.”

— Jade Martinez-Pogue is a Noozhawk contributing writer. Se can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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