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Berkeley must redirect resources to help mentally ill, ease strain on police

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APRIL 17, 2015

In light of concerns voiced at a recent community meeting, the city needs to redirect its resources to different intervention programs for those undergoing a psychiatric or mental health crisis. Berkeley Police Department, which is responding to a rising number of such calls, should be a last-resort safety net. The time, energy and costs associated with police handling the bulk of these emergencies would be better used elsewhere.

At a Monday meeting, BPD Officer Jeff Shannon, who coordinates the department’s crisis-intervention training, summarized the situation as “the No. 1 drain on our resources” and described the larger mental health system as “broken.” And he is right. With a 43 percent increase over the last five or six years in 5150 calls — which allow police to take individuals into custody for psychiatric care — the city of Berkeley needs to find new ways of helping its many mentally ill residents and community members.

The mobile crisis team, which is not a division of the police department, is spread thin and only operates from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. It is often better when the team, rather than uniformed officers, handles mental health crises. Some in the community are distrustful of law enforcement and may feel more comfortable with civilian assistance.

But the trouble does not stop when professionals or police arrive at the scene. According to Shannon’s remarks at the Berkeley Safe Neighborhoods Committee meeting, John George Psychiatric Hospital in San Leandro is the only facility nearby that takes patients who do not have insurance. But with a limited number of beds, patients can be turned away from getting the care they need. Moreover, it is evident that there is a dearth of long-term, intensive treatment for the mentally ill in the city — or at least a deficiency in connecting patients to such resources.

Expanding the hours and staffing of the mobile crisis team would be one way to reduce strain on the police department. Coordinating with and recruiting more volunteers in the city would also help contain costs. And although the onus should not be placed on BPD alone, ensuring that as many officers as possible obtain crisis-intervention training would serve to reduce dangerous encounters — for both police and patients. On top of these steps, we look forward to seeing recommendations in a forthcoming letter from the Berkeley Safe Neighborhoods Committee.

So often on campus, we hear students discuss the importance of mental health and wellness. It is crucial that those conversations happen at the student level for many reasons: one being that schizophrenia and other disorders often present themselves during the years that people typically attend college. Helping students find treatment, care and resources before they leave campus ultimately helps reduce the number of mentally ill people on the streets. It is now time for the city and community members to invest in the kinds of resources and hold the kinds of discussions that the campus community has prioritized.

Editorials represent the collective opinion of the Senior Editorial Board as written by the opinion editor.

APRIL 17, 2015