Orange County Sheriff’s department to implement new strategies for responding to calls with behavioral health matters and homelessness

Orange County Sheriff’s department creates a new Behavioral Health Bureau to work with citizens experiencing homelessness and mental health crises. Mattman 747/Flickr

Training with mental health professionals enables law enforcement to be more effective in handling crisis calls

Orange County Sheriff Dan Barnes announces that the department will form a Behavioral Health Bureau to handle mental health crisis calls and deal with the homeless in a social media live stream.

“Although many of the homeless individuals we come in contact with report struggling with mental health or substance abuse disorders, this is not an issue specific to the homeless population,” Barnes said in a press release. “The Sheriff’s Department often gets called to respond to help individuals in the midst of a mental health crisis, and we recognized the need to widen our approach.”

Barry Miller, a local law enforcement officer, takes Human Services classes at Saddleback College. He is in the final phase of obtaining his degree with a second internship in a participating Human Service agency. Miller is avidly pursuing continuing education to enable him to provide better services for the individuals he works with in the field.

“The previous homeless outreach liaison program that they had seemed ineffective,” he said. “I worked almost 13 ½ years with an agency in Los Angeles County who had a true mental health team. Going back to the mid-90s, we had officers who rode around with a full-time forensic nurse that worked with the homeless and mentally ill.”

This program is successful in creating and referring resources to the homeless. The agency Miller currently works for also has mental health liaison officers. It is a two-fold program with investigators that conduct follow-up visits with individuals and families to provide a very thorough education on resources.

“This has become a daunting process as the mental health population has skyrocketed – or the awareness of them,” Miller said. “I’ve called the Crisis Assessment Team and Psychiatric Evaluation Response Team on numerous occasions, and they make a determination as to whether or not they will respond to the call based on the assessment of each situation.”

The ability and authorization lie with the responding officer based on the 5585 or 5150 criteria. An individual has clearly demonstrated that they are a danger to themselves or a danger to others or gravely disabled. Based on the observations, officers must take a person to a hospital or other receiving facility.

Miller believes that more extensive training in the mental health field would be beneficial. Law enforcement officers already address these issues in briefings and department-wide training conducted on a trimester basis.

“We have informal discussions in our briefings about calls that come up,” he said. “We would then be able to, as supervisors, provide insight and other considerations and have other people chime in on their experiences that might be considered in the future.”

The agency has lists of resources given to the police officers regularly regarding homelessness, mental health and addiction. It is updated regularly as more services become available.

“My personal opinion is that working with social workers is an extremely beneficial thing,” Miller said. “I think it is a mistake to just solely, individually or independently, have social workers and forensic nurses respond without an officer. Many times, situations are dangerous where there has been violence or an attack on family or threat of suicide or other assault.” 

Kevin VonLuft is a 23-year veteran of the Irvine Police department and has a Master’s Degree in psychology. Crisis intervention training, de-escalation tactics and understanding mental health have been a basic foundation for all of the officers in his department.

VonLuft does outreach and follows up on non-criminal issues. However, if they are homeless and there is a criminal component to the initial call, appropriate officers will handle the matter to stop criminal activity or violence.

“If there is a need for intervention in the household, that will be addressed after any criminal matter is handled,” he said. “We work closely with the CAT – The Central Assessment Team – on a regular basis. They are probably in our community two to three times a week for an assessment.”

The Behavioral Health Bureau, supervised by Captain Nate Wilson, includes six sergeants, eight Homeless Outreach Deputies and approximately 50 Homeless Liaison Deputies assigned to the Sheriff’s Department’s 13 contract cities. 

“We want to approach these cases with compassion, and we want to provide solutions,” Wilson said. “Of course, we will rely on enforcement when criminal violations of law occur, but we hope to provide individuals with a path to get them the help they need.”

The O.C. Sheriff’s department collaborates with the Orange County Health Care Agency to form a professional, multi-disciplinary team to assess mental health crisis calls to assign appropriate care and reduce recidivism. The Bureau will provide additional 80 hours of training for police officers with mental health professionals to determine the best course of action and referral to services needed.