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Criminal Justice

Cops Dropped From Many Mental Health Calls In Huntington Beach

Two crisis counselors from Be Well OC stand next a blue mobile response van.
Lance Lindgren (L) and Laxon Sumawiganda of the non-profit service provider Be Well OC stand in front of one of the new mobile response vans.
(Robert Garrova / LAist )
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Huntington Beach has become the latest city to try using unarmed behavioral health specialists instead of police to respond to non-violent mental health and substance use crises.

The city has partnered with a nonprofit provider, Be Well OC, which sends out two-person teams of crisis counselors. The idea is to keep people who need care out of jail.

Besides handling psychiatric and drug emergencies, the teams also go out on welfare checks.

That was the case for Erin Brooke Lee, who until recently was living out of her van. She said in the past she would be frightened when police checked on her, but she felt differently when the crisis counselors showed up last month.

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“They helped me not be scared,” said Lee, adding that the counselors also helped her navigate confusing paperwork. “I got everything handled that’s going to play a part in me getting housing."

‘The Biggest Root Of It All Is Empathy’

In some cases, crisis counselors such as Laxon Sumawiganda will use de-escalation techniques to get people experiencing a mental health emergency to a crisis or detox center.

“The biggest root of it all is empathy and being able to read people,” he said.

“I have literally watched people be arrested because they had a mental health or substance abuse issue. And we’ve used our jails and prisons to engage in mass incarceration because we didn’t have the systems in place to deal with people properly,” Orange County D.A. Todd Spitzer said at a press conference Thursday announcing the full launch of the mobile response program.

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Over the next few weeks, the effort will staff up to about 14 people, with two teams staffed seven days a week, from noon to midnight. The crisis counselors are dispatched from a non-emergency call line and 911 operators when appropriate.

During a month-long soft launch, Be Well OC said it handled about 330 calls for service. Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley said the service could respond to some 15,000 calls a year.

“We need to have this model throughout Orange County,” she said.

The city of L.A is moving towards setting up a similar program on a pilot basis, while L.A. County is expanding its use of unarmed clinicians to respond to people in a mental health crisis.

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Robert Garrova is reporting on the intersection of mental health and law enforcement.