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California sheriff's department to pair therapists with deputies on some mental health calls

Sheriff's new approach to mental health calls
Sheriff's new approach to mental health calls... 09:44

A sheriff's office in Nevada County, California, is launching a program to partner deputies responding to certain types of non-criminal 911 calls with a licensed therapist. The pilot program, which comes as police departments across the country are facing increased scrutiny, aims to reduce the risk of deadly confrontations with people who are in distress. 

Nevada County Sheriff Shannan Moon, who said she plans to launch the new Mobile Crisis Team by the end of the year, told CBSN that the program is designed to give someone experiencing a mental health crisis "the best service they can receive." 

Moon said that deputies responding to mental health 911 calls generally transport people to the local emergency room to speak with a therapist. Now, dispatchers will assign calls related to mental health, substance abuse, or homelessness to a deputy and a mental health professional who are paired up in a patrol car, according to the county's description of the program.

"I said, 'let's cut down that time, let's bring that therapist out into the field and have that connection where that person is in crisis, to try to alleviate some of the issues with having a law enforcement response,'" she said. 

As an example, Moon noted that dispatch centers often receive calls from worried family members asking for welfare checks on their loved ones, who they suspect might harm themselves.

That kind of situation "can much more effectively be serviced with a clinician going to a residence and seeing someone where they are," she said. 

The sheriff's decision comes after deputies from her department and police from nearby Grass Valley shot and killed a man who refused commands to drop a shotgun on January 1, 2020. The man was well-known to authorities as someone who had mental health problems and had talked about committing so-called "suicide by cop." When asked if there were any lessons from that encounter to take into the pilot program, Moon said that her officers always try to protect the community — but she noted that due to the likelihood of violence in that scenario, a mental health professional may not have been dispatched in a case like that one. 

Overall, Moon said she hopes the program will de-escalate confrontation with law enforcement, reduce the risk of deadly confrontations with people experiencing a mental health crisis and ultimately reduce rates of arrest and incarceration.

Moon said the pilot model has seen success in places like San Diego and Santa Barbara. Multiple cities in Colorado have also experimented with pairing police with behavioral health specialists.  

"We're seeing this all up and down, not just in California, across the midwest... This is definitely the way in which we're going to see a lot of agencies shift," she said. 

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