Criminal Justice Council report shows mental health bed shortage, need for more psychiatric resources

Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office building on Soquel Avenue.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Santa Cruz County has its first analysis that compares local law enforcement agencies’ mental health policies and procedures, and their responses to mental health-related 911 calls. Though both law enforcement officers and mental health liaisons see working together as beneficial, those in law enforcement would like more resources — both in terms of personnel and facilities.

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Local police officers and sheriff’s deputies responded to nearly 600 mental health-related 911 calls over a 2½-month period this summer, according to a new report that is the first to analyze how different law enforcement agencies across Santa Cruz County handle mental health crises.

The Criminal Justice Council (CJC) of Santa Cruz County released its 2022 annual report Wednesday, including a comparative analysis of every law enforcement agency’s mental and behavioral health policies, training and procedures.

It revealed that police responded to 577 calls to 911 related to mental health between June 1 and Aug. 15, or an average of nearly eight calls a day. That is likely an undercount, said 2nd District County Supervisor and CJC chair Zach Friend, given that some calls might not be coded by dispatchers as involving mental health issues.

“In part, what was driving this data collection was the sense from the courts, law enforcement and community that the issue [of mental health] has increased over time, and there needs to be a greater focus on it,” Friend said. “What that tells me is that improving data collection across the agencies would be more helpful because it helps inform both policymakers and the agencies about the best approach.”

The report, meant to give the community a better understanding of the scope of mental health calls and subsequent response, involved data collection from two surveys — one of law enforcement officers and one of mental health liaisons — created by Watsonville-based research organization Applied Survey Research in order to gauge the policies in practice and how the liaisons and officers work together to respond to those calls.

The council found that a shortage of psychiatric beds was forcing police to send some people to Dominican Hospital’s emergency room instead, a trend that threatens to strain on hospital resources and often ties up law enforcement officials for hours waiting for hospital evaluation.

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Of 100 people law enforcement agencies transported to a facility between June 1 and Aug. 15, 83% were admitted to a behavioral health unit or psychiatric facility, and 16% were sent to Dominican Hospital’s emergency department due to a shortage of psychiatric bed space.

Friend said those diversions to Dominican Hospital’s emergency room are a concern.

“The fact that there were diversions from Telecare [Santa Cruz Psychiatric Health Facility] to Dominican, or even the inability to transport to Telecare in the first place speaks to the need here,” he said. “It is really something from a policy perspective that all of the agencies in the greater community need to address.”

Just 1% of the calls — one person — was transported by officers and deputies to jail, by the Watsonville Police Department, the report found.

“Understanding the various responses is probably the next step,” said incoming 3rd District County Supervisor Justin Cummings, who was heavily involved in 2020 in forming the process for annual CJC reports.

The report found other disparities in how law enforcement officials respond to mental health calls.

Three local law enforcement agencies — the Watsonville and Santa Cruz police departments and the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office — partner with mental health liaisons, mental health professionals who accompany officers on such calls. The report found that liaisons were scheduled during the time when most mental health calls occur.

The Watsonville Police Department has one mental health liaison, who works only weekdays. The Capitola and Scotts Valley police departments do not have any mental health liaisons, citing budget restrictions and relatively few calls for service as the main reasons.

Friend said it’s clear that having mental health liaisons working with law enforcement to expedite responses and assist in deescalation is valuable. Both law enforcement officers and mental health liaisons felt positively about working together, but also said they needed more resources.

“The agencies that do have them said that they would like to expand their hours, and those that didn’t have them wanted them,” he said.

Cummings said he thinks other local mental and behavioral health services should be consulted as well.

“I think it’s important to get feedback from service providers who respond to calls for service that are nonemergency and are without law enforcement,” he said. “There’s a good chunk of folks who want to see those kinds of services, but this report really highlights that mental health responders are seen as valuable, whether we shift to a non-law enforcement response or not.”

Friend said the report shows good news as well, including the small percentage of people who were taken to jail. “That number is, I think, lower than people would have anticipated,” he said, explaining that in many places, jail is the primary location for transportation. “That shows some elements of the system are working.”



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