Eureka Police Sgt. Leonard La France can point to countless situations in which he or a member of the department’s Community Services Engagement Team (CSET) have intervened in a mental health crisis. Just last month, his team responded to the report of a suicidal adolescent who had barricaded themselves in a vehicle. CSET officers were able to de-escalate the situation and get the individual the help they needed, but La France admitted that having a non-law enforcement option on the scene – a mental health professional – “would have provided additional experience and knowledge” and could have “been more effective.”

Sgt. La France with longtime partner Vex | LoCO file photo

“We’ve seen many, many, many calls where adults and juveniles were in crisis and/or suicidal,” he told the Outpost in a recent interview. “Many of these [situations] could have included [a mental health] clinician taking the lead with CSET in support. Some would require CSET to take the lead as the clinician waits in support.”

Eureka police responded to more than 900 similar calls for service in 2021, up by about 37 percent from 2020. Presently, when EPD receives a mental health-related call for service, patrol officers are dispatched to the scene. Members of the CSET typically respond as well and will often take over the call. If the call happens to take place during regular work hours and the department really needs the support, officers will request assistance from the county Department of Health and Human Service, but if staff isn’t available the situation will be handled exclusively by law enforcement. La France is trying to change that.

The City of Eureka is among a wave of municipalities across California and the country rethinking how they handle non-criminal 911 calls. Earlier this month, the Eureka City Council approved the creation of a managing mental health clinician position to serve on the police department’s budding Alternative Response Team (ART) and bolster the City’s response to mental health crises.

“This is a first for the City of Eureka, and it’s actually really groundbreaking for us,” La France said, noting that the position will be funded by Measure Z. “Let’s say we have a call for a welfare check on an individual who is in crisis but there is no indication of violence. In lieu of sending a standard police response, we [would] send ART and maybe CSET in support. Depending on the circumstances, ART has the option of using anyone within its team to take the lead which could lead towards various outcomes.”

Specifically, he hopes ART will further CSET’s mission to address substance abuse and crime within the homeless community. Since CSET was established in 2018, La France has focused on making “real human connections” with houseless folks in Eureka by conducting outreach and helping to connect people with critical resources. While this approach has proven to be effective in some ways, he recognized that a different strategy – a combination of social work and law enforcement – was also needed.

“We would be out at our services locations such as Free Meal, engaging people, conducting outreach and recognized we did not have the expertise to really address the needs of the severe mental health cases or even those needing significant social service assistance,” he explained. “…As time went by and CSET continued progressing our program which included responding to persons in crisis, we further recognized the need to have mental health professionals co-respond with us – this would give us options on approaches, different perspectives and a depth of education/experience that most law enforcement officers do not necessarily possess.”

A mental health professional actually embedded on the team would help advance CSET’s efforts to prevent mental health crises from occurring in the first place.

“We’re leaning more toward alternative ways of responding and being more proactive and preemptive than reactionary,” Eureka City Manager Miles Slattery told the Outpost this week. “The mental health clinician will not only help CSET with calls for services but also supplement what Uplift Eureka is doing. When they meet people where they’re at and are able to provide services to them that prevent them from getting into an emergency situation.”

Hiring a managing mental health clinician is the first step. Eventually, this person will oversee the City’s Mental Health Team which will, ideally, include a field clinician and two mental health responders. 

“This team would conduct proactive engagement with the community independently, would also be able to be embedded with CSET and Uplift, and would also assign one employee each day to ART,” La France said. “ART contains 3.5 prongs: one mental health professional from within the City’s Mental Health Team, a medical professional and an outreach worker from Uplift Eureka. CSET is the half-prong as they are not always needed, but again, we are not naïve enough to believe we can fully remove law enforcement from the picture.” 

EPD’s Alternate Response Team | Contributed

Eureka City Councilmember Natalie Arroyo hopes there will come a time when clinicians can respond to non-violent calls for service independently of law enforcement officials “when it is safe to do so.”

“This will be a huge boon for our law enforcement personnel, freeing them up to respond to calls where a sworn officer is needed, and ensuring that people needing health care receive the services they need,” Arroyo wrote in an email to the Outpost. “There are still some challenges to work out, like dispatching protocols and safety measures for the clinicians, but I’m confident EPD can make it happen.”

Councilmember Leslie Castellano acknowledged that access to mental health resources “can be very difficult in our rural region” and said the City’s effort to hire a managing mental health clinician “will continue to advance Eureka’s innovative approaches to address the needs of the unhoused community and the general public.”

Councilmember Scott Bauer added that the position will serve as a key component in helping CSET de-escalate mental health crises in the field, rather than putting an individual on a 5150 hold.

“The health care professionals in our hospitals cannot be continually inundated with those experiencing a severe mental health crisis,” he told the Outpost. “We cannot and must not allow those entrusted to care for us in our times of need to be assaulted, as has happened one time too many in the recent past. I hope the mental health clinician, in cooperation with CSET, will help us better assess and triage mental health issues being experienced on the streets, and thus protect our beloved health care professionals from potentially dangerous working conditions.” 

More information on the Managing Mental Health Clinician position can be found here.