Thirty-five percent of calls to the Berkeley Police Department are for people who are having a mental health crisis. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Thirty-five percent of calls to the Berkeley Police Department are for people who are having a mental health crisis. Here, police officers restrained a man who was later taken for a mental health evaluation as two mental health workers (left), try to calm him down. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Responding to people with mental health issues is the number one drain on police resources in Berkeley, a police officer who specializes in the topic said this week.

Nationally, 10% of police calls are for people having a mental health crisis, according to Berkeley Police Officer Jeff Shannon. In Berkeley, that number is 35% or more. Over the past five years, police have seen a 43% increase in calls for “5150s,” or people who are a danger to themselves or others, he said.

“Not only in Berkeley, but across the nation, we are experiencing a mental health crisis,” Shannon told members of the Berkeley Safe Neighborhoods Committee on Monday. “We are seeing way more people who are sick, way more people who are in crisis, who need help, than we have capacity.”

Berkeley police officer Jeff Shannon addresses the Berkeley Safe Neighborhoods Committee on April 13, 2015. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
Berkeley Police Officer Jeff Shannon addresses the Berkeley Safe Neighborhoods Committee on Monday. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

The committee, which meets monthly with top police officials at department headquarters, asked for the report about the mentally ill homeless population in the downtown area. The request was prompted by an incident last month when a homeless woman attacked a commuter as he was walking into the downtown Berkeley BART station. The woman, who was mentally ill and was living in the station, jumped on the man’s back and hit him over the head.

The report, delivered to some of Berkeley’s most involved citizens, appeared to shock and dismay everyone in the room.

“I had no idea [the problem] is as big as it is,” said former Mayor Shirley Dean, the chair of the committee.

Berkeley’s homeless population has higher rates of both mental illness and substance abuse than the national average, according to a recent city report. When those with mental illness take their medications regularly, they are no more violent than the normal population, said Shannon, who runs the department’s specialized Crisis Intervention Team, or CIT, program. When they don’t take their medication, some of them can become paranoid and act out, he said.

There is a core group of homeless people downtown who have an exceptionally high number of issues, according to Police Capt. Erik Upson. The department is trying to focus extra resources on ten people who have had numerous crises, although there are even more who fit that category, he said.

An October 2014 report prepared by Alameda County stated there were 155 people from Berkeley who had  gone to a psychiatric hospital the previous year. Twelve of those had been institutionalized more than four times. The numbers may not present a complete picture, as they only reflect those on Medi-Cal insurance, not those with private health insurance or Medicare, said Matthai Chakko, spokesman for the city of Berkeley.

Shannon — who is also a trained clinical psychologist — said he gets numerous calls each month from people out of state, or far from Berkeley, who express concern about a family member who is living on the street locally. Often they ask Berkeley police to get that person to the hospital for treatment.

But county resources are so overwhelmed, the chances of someone getting real help are slim, said Shannon. John George Psychiatric Hospital, the locked mental health ward for Alameda County, sees more patients than it has room for. Consequently, mentally ill people in crisis — if they get a bed — are usually held for a few days, then released with a 10-day supply of medication and a referral to a doctor. Most of the time these people just return to the streets. Many are so disorganized as a result of their mental illness that they never seek additional help, he said.

“Chances are they are going to fall through the cracks again,” he said.

Alameda County has not enacted Laura’s Law, which would allow courts to order seriously mentally ill people, those with a recent history of violence toward themselves or others, into assisted outpatient treatment.

Berkeley police are often the first line of response to people with mental illness. About 21% of the police force and 29% of sergeants assigned to patrol teams have received specialized training in responding to mentally ill people in crisis through the CIT program. The police department’s CIT coverage currently extends to all patrol teams. (Although that may just be one officer on each shift.) Officers learn special skills to deescalate volatile situations. The goal is to keep mentally ill people out of jail unless they have committed a crime.

Berkeley is one of only two cities in the state with its own health department, which has a mental health section. Berkeley spends more money on mental health issues than most cities, said Shannon, but the problem still outstrips the solution. (Hear Shannon discuss the issue of police interactions with the mentally ill on a recent KQED program.)

Berkeley changed its model of responding to those with mental health needs in 2007, said Chakko. Previously, outreach workers used to go into the streets and refer customers to clinics in town. Now a group of 30 mental health clinicians deliver those services on the street, right where the people who need help live. They also work with community groups working with those with mental health issues.

“They are looking to engage with people before problems develop,” said Chakko.

Berkeley also has a 4-person Mobile Crisis Team that responds to people who are acting out. The team only works from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. each day.

A few years ago, Berkeley had four Mobile Crisis Teams, but cutbacks whittled that number to one, said Paul Kealoha-Blake the chair of Berkeley’s Mental Health Commission. That has exacerbated the situation, he said. Chakko confirmed that funding for the Mobile Crisis Team had been cut back, but said the cuts did not go that far. Berkeley had two shifts that covered a 12-hour period seven days a week. There is now one shift covering a 10.5-hour period, seven days a week, said Chakko.

Berkeley hopes to expand the staffing for the Mobile Crisis Team starting in July. The city is in the middle of hearing public comment for a three-year, $12 million to $13.5 million spending plan for mental health services. If adopted, it would add a half-time clinical staff member and a new half-time peer or family staff member to the team.

The money for that would come from the Mental Health Services Act. In 2004, California voters passed Proposition 63, the Mental Health Services Act (MHSA), to place a 1% tax on personal incomes above $1 million. The Mental Health Commission will hold a public hearing on the three-year MHSA plan on Thursday, April 23, at 7 p.m. at the North Berkeley Senior Center at 1901 Hearst St.

Kealoha-Blake said the decrease in funding has put an extra burden on police, who he says are now often the only responders to someone in crisis. Kealoha-Blake said police should not be working alone to help people with mental health issues. Studies show that outcomes are better when police are paired with trained mental health professionals.

Kayla Moore, from Facebook
Kayla Moore, who died in police custody. Photo: Facebook

“What we have effectively done is cut back on civilian mental health on the street, and we have burdened and placed our police force in that position,” said Kealoha-Blake. “It is unfair of us to turn over mental health in the streets to police. It’s a tough job. There are many other things they could be doing besides dealing with schizophrenics.”

Berkeley police were criticized (and are being sued) for their handling of the case of Kayla Moore, a Berkeley resident who had a history of mental illness and died in police custody two years ago. On Feb. 13, 2013, police responded to a disturbance call at the home of Moore, a 347-pound transgendered woman. Moore’s roommate had told police on the phone that she was schizophrenic but had not been taking her medication. Instead of calling the Mobile Crisis Team, police attempted to arrest Moore after they found an outstanding warrant in her name. When Moore resisted arrest, a number of officers restrained her, including some who straddled her. Police did not immediately notice that Moore had stopped breathing.

A coroner’s report determined that Moore had died of acute intoxication complicated by obesity and heart disease.

This article was updated on April 17 to include new information from the city about the number of hours the Mobile Crisis Team operates.

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...