Calif. City Council considers adding mental health clinician to dispatch center

The unique partnership is an attempt to decrease emergency services contacts with individuals who are better served by mental health professionals


Sam Morgen
The Bakersfield Californian

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — Mental health crises result in the highest number of calls to the Bakersfield Police Department dispatch center. Now, the city hopes to have an expert in place to field those calls before police must respond.

On Wednesday, the Bakersfield City Council will vote on staffing the city's law enforcement communication center with a behavioral health clinician to handle non-emergency mental health calls. According to Kern County Behavioral Health and Recovery Services, which would supply the clinician, the arrangement is among the first in the country.

"Kern Behavioral Health, and our relationship with law enforcement in general, tries to be very innovative and one step ahead of where we're going," said Kern BHRS Administrator Tonya Mann. "There are a handful of other agencies that I've heard doing this, but as far as California, I would say it's fairly rare and we are on the frontier."

The unique partnership is an attempt to decrease law enforcement contacts with individuals who are better served by mental health professionals. When someone calls in with a mental health crisis that does not require an immediate police response, dispatchers will transfer the call to the clinician who will assess which services are needed.

"They can sit there and have a conversation with an individual. They can link this person to our crisis hotline," Mann said, adding other services would also be available. "If the situation takes a turn and it does need a law enforcement dispatch ... we can do that as well."

BPD averages 45 to 60 calls from suicidal individuals over a typical six-day period and conducts 200 welfare checks on individuals with mental health issues, according to BPD Sgt. Robert Pair. The department and Kern BHRS already partner to operate a mobile evaluation team meant to specifically address mental health crises, but the new addition to the dispatch center is meant to avoid a police response completely.

"Unfortunately, what we find is that when there's a lack of services, the public perception is that those fall back on police services," Pair said. "We get more and more burdens with having to deal with that, which is outside of our traditional job of enforcing the law and public safety."

Community groups have pushed the city to scale back the types of calls to which BPD officers respond. After the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis last year, criticism of BPD's use of force reached a fever pitch.

The integration of mental health services and law enforcement was one of the recommendations included in a report authored by the Bakersfield Police Department Community Collaborative, an independent commission tasked by the City Council to study Bakersfield's police tactics.

The new mental health clinician could signal BPD is starting to shift its strategy.

"We know as well as anybody that having a law enforcement officer respond to somebody in a mental health crisis isn't always the best option, but there aren't always other options," Pair said. "We see what's happening throughout the country, and always, like any profession, are innovating, trying to figure out how we can do what we do better."

The position is budgeted to cost up to $135,000, paid for by the Public Safety and Vital Services Measure. The item is placed on the consent agenda of Wednesday's meeting, which is reserved for topics that are typically likely to pass.

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(c)2021 The Bakersfield Californian

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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