‘The humanity and the safety’: Berkeley police address concerns regarding mental health crises

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Depending on the day, anywhere from about 35 to 45 percent of calls that the Berkeley Police Department receives are related to mental health crises, according to Sgt. Veronica Rodrigues.

Within the last 10 years, Rodrigues said BPD has implemented programs such as an optional 38-hour training course for the crisis intervention team, or CIT. The program teaches officers to know what signs to look for when dealing with people experiencing mental health crises. Rodrigues added that officers go through de-escalation training throughout the year, which began about five years ago.

“We actually have a pretty extensive process,” Rodrigues said. “We were at the forefront of partnering with physicians.”

Some community members still feel that training should be more in-depth, however, and that mental health professionals should be the ones responding to such crises. Maria Moore, the sister of Kayla Moore, a woman with schizophrenia who died in police custody in 2013, believes CIT is a start, but that it needs to be mandatory and longer.

Moore, while acknowledging the importance of CIT, said she believes that some police officers still do not have the training to deal with mental health crisis situations, and instead of helping, their presence “creates a sense of fear in someone who is already having a crisis. … (BPD’s) first response is to put them in a wrap device or a spit hood. That only escalates the person further and traumatizes them more.”

When asked to respond to the view held by community members such as Peyton Provenzano from the activist network Copwatch that police should not be the first responders to people in mental health crises, Rodrigues said these situations require “team effort.”

In addition, Rodrigues noted that there is a mobile crisis team that deploys with BPD. It includes about two physicians who “work almost every day” and help the police monitor and speak with the individuals involved in mental health crises. She says the team is usually on call for several hours but added that it is hard to gauge a specific time frame.

“The ultimate goal is to safely resolve the situation and provide the individual with the proper level of assistance,” Rodrigues said.

Moore said that while she thinks the mobile crisis team does “amazing” work, the team’s hours need to be expanded. She said she believes more funding should go toward getting more medical care professionals as first responders, as she believes “cops should be in the background, and the mental health professionals should be in the front” during these situations.

According to Moore, mental health crises should go through a nonemergency phone line.

An involuntary psychiatric hold, or a 5150, can last up to 72 hours. In these cases, police take a person experiencing a mental health crisis to a hospital for treatment. In Berkeley, people are either taken to John George Psychiatric Hospital or Alta Bates Summit Medical Center, according to Rodrigues.

“In terms of 5150 situations, you evaluate if an individual is a danger to others, a danger to themselves or severely disabled. That is generally the criteria that we are looking for,” Rodrigues said when discussing how to determine whether to put someone in an involuntary psychiatric hold.

According to Sahana Matthews, the chair of the Police Review Commission, BPD is working with a company called Lexipol and transferring BPD’s policies into Lexipol’s format. The PRC is currently looking into those policies to make sure there are no drastic changes from the original policies to the new ones.

One of those policies involves the use of spit hoods when dealing with a person going through a mental health crisis. A spit hood covers an individual’s head with the intention to stop them from spitting or biting an officer.

Matthews said there is debate within the PRC regarding the spit hood and concerning “the humanity and the safety.”

The PRC plans to look into that policy by “January or February at the latest,” according to Matthews. She said some members of the PRC wonder if police would be able to clearly determine that an individual is struggling for breath while wearing a spit hood.

Kayla Moore’s family members appealed their case against the city in April after a judge dismissed it early this year. Maria Moore said she feels the need to keep her sister’s story in the minds of the community more than ever. Even after five years, she has not witnessed the changes she would have hoped.

“I think that there is a stigma of dangerousness that is falsely associated with mental health crisis situations,” Provenzano said. “Just because someone else is in a crisis does not mean that you are in danger.”

Contact Boyce Buchanan at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @BuchananBoyce.