Piedmont police pilot mental health services program

After more than three months of evaluation, Piedmont Police Chief Jeremy Bowers said a county-run pilot program to give police officers help with responding to calls for mental health services appears to be effective and working — at least from his city’s perspective.

Bowers said Piedmont is one of several Alameda County cities taking part in the Community Assessment and Transport Team (CATT), launched in July to help law enforcement officers handle calls involving people deemed to be more in need of a mental health response than a police one. Piedmont joined the pilot program in August.

The program is a collaboration among Alameda County Behavioral Health Care Services, Alameda Care Connect (which connects clients with housing, medical, mental health and addiction treatment services), Falck Alameda County (the company that provides ambulance services for Alameda County), Alameda County EMS Agency, and Bonita House Inc., an Oakland-based nonprofit mental health agency.

Upon the program’s rollout, Dr. Karl Sporer, medical director of the Alameda County  Emergency Medical Services Agency, said, “To get here, we had to invent the mental health first-responder, and that’s a game-changer.”

Under the CATT program, police officers who find themselves on a call for service involving someone who appears to need mental health services can call in a two-person CATT team — an Alameda County Behavioral Health Care Services certified mental health clinician paired with an emergency medical technician employed by Falck Alameda County, the company that provides ambulance services for Alameda County.

Yolanda Takahashi, Alameda County’s CATT program manager, said the goal is for 12 two-person teams to be up and running. Currently, there are five such teams. The teams are based in Oakland, Hayward, San Leandro on Fremont, and currently also serve Piedmont and unincorporated areas of the county served by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office. They can be called from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day.

With the option of calling in a CATT team, Bowers said, officers no longer simply take people with mental health issues to the John George Psychiatric Hospital in San Leandro, or to a hospital emergency room, as a matter of course.

“We will be more fine-tuned as to what services those people will receive,” Bowers said in an interview.

This is the sort of help police chiefs from around the U.S. have been calling for. Law enforcement officers typically have limited training in how to handle calls involving a person having a mental health crisis. Several larger cities, including Oakland and San Francisco, have recently established similar teams separate from CATT.

Bowers said police officers call the CATT team for non-violent situations; potentially violent encounters will continue to be addressed by police officers, he said.

Stephanie Lewis, of Alameda County Behavioral Health, said Alameda County does provide some mental health-related training to police officers, particularly in Oakland. 

“But we usually experience better outcomes if there’s a clinician who can help with such responses,” Lewis said.

It has taken a few months to evaluate the effectiveness of the Piedmont department’s participation, Bowers said, because Piedmont police don’t get that many calls involving people with mental health issues. Since this program began in August, police have called the CATT team 10 times, and a CATT team was able to respond to six of those calls. Four of those six calls led to the CATT team members directly helping people get connected with needed help, Bowers said.

“The fact our officers and supervisors in the field are proactively calling the CATT team tells me there’s effectiveness with the program,” said Bowers, adding that if officers didn’t feel these teams were helpful, they wouldn’t be called. “We’re all for it, and we’re all for it expanding.”

Lewis said the data about who gets help, what help they get and other related issues will be analyzed between now and 2023, when the current funding — from local and regional health-related ballot measures — runs out. She hopes the program’s performance will attract more funding, and raise the program from “pilot” to full program status.

The chief also discussed the CATT teams at Thursday night’s Piedmont Public Safety Committee meeting. Committee member Garrett Keating asked Bowers whether the teams have been called in on reports of homeless people experiencing a crisis within Piedmont’s borders.

“We have,” Bowers replied, “and it was quite effective.”

Other matters discussed by the Public Safety Committee Thursday night included:

— Bowers said the police department is working now on a three year department Strategic Plan, with several recent focus groups offering their perceptions of police operations, and a related two-day department team-building workshop in October.

— Preparations for installation of the city’s expanded Public Safety Camera system continue to move ahead. The first such cameras in Piedmont were installed four years ago at the intersection of Oakland Avenue and Grand Avenue. In October, Bowers told the council he hopes cameras could be in operation at more local intersections by April 2021.

— Bowers said his department is filming a series of “Inside the Piedmont Police Department” videos aimed at showing the public how the department investigates cases and otherwise carries out its day-to-day business. The first video, he said, will detail how his department investigates sexual assault cases. Such information is timely, Bowers said, since this past summer’s creation of the Piedmont Protectors Instagram account that includes accounts of sexual assault and harassment incidents involving young, local victims.

— The arrival of new Interim Fire Chief Michael Despain, a committee member. He said that in what he expects to be a short time in Piedmont he wants to help find a new permanent chief and, in the meantime, “keep everything steady.”

Contact Sam Richards at sam.richards4344@gmail.com

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