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New program to divert some police calls to mental health team

by Steven Felschundneff | steven@claremont-courier.com

Tri-City Mental Health and the Claremont Police Department are set to unveil a new program in Claremont through which trained mental health professionals will respond to certain police calls. The Psychiatric Assessment Care Team, informally called PACT, is scheduled to begin responding to calls in January.

Once the program launches, a team consisting of a licensed psychiatric technician and a licensed mental health clinician, will respond to calls for service regarding homeless individuals and those experiencing some type of mental health crisis. When this type of call is received by dispatch, a watch commander will triage the situation and decide whether the call is best handled by police, the PACT team or both. The team will be on the job Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

The police department’s role in responding to these types of calls, and how the city allocates resources, has been a hot topic throughout the year. However, the creation of the PACT team is not a reaction to current events, but the culmination of years of planning.

Shawn Smith, a crisis intervention and medication support manager at Tri-City, will oversee the program, which will operate out of office space at the Claremont Police Department. Mr. Smith and Claremont Police Chief Shelly Vander Veen have been working on PACT for three years and both are excited to see it come to fruition.

“We are very proud of our partnership with Tri-City. Shawn and I have been talking about this type of program for years, so we are both very excited to have the opportunity, with the current climate, to make it happen,” Chief Vander Veen said.

Specifics of how the program will work are still being hammered out and will likely shift as the team actually goes to work. However, the goal is to get the resources Tri-City provides to the people who need them the most as efficiently as possible. Mr. Smith says the team will focus on helping the “whole person,” which can include mental health treatment, general healthcare, substance abuse services, as well as spiritual help.

Funding for PACT comes from the Mental Health Services Act which was passed by voters in 2004.

Under an existing program here in Claremont, police will dispatch a Tri-City homeless service advocate after receiving non-emergency calls about homeless individuals. The advocate, part of an outreach and engagement team, will then go into the field and attempt to locate the individual. However, if the advocate is on another call there could be a significant delay, resulting in a lost opportunity to provide help. The key difference with PACT is that the team will be housed in Claremont and co-respond in their own vehicle, eliminating any wait time.

“Really what the PACT team does is reduce that lag time that is currently happening,” Tri-City Executive Director Toni Navarro said. “Even just ten minutes is valuable time lost. So, if we have a team that is specifically assigned to Claremont and is located in the city then we will be able to catch people in that safety net quicker, which will increase the likelihood that they will engage.”

Given an example reported in the COURIER’s police blotter regarding a young man who seemed very agitated, was screaming, appeared to be under the influence and was jaywalking across Foothill Boulevard, Ms. Navarro said that seemed like a situation that would be appropriate for response by both PACT and the police. But if PACT could get the situation under control, then police officers could return to their beat.

Conversely, if PACT responded alone but end up feeling unsafe or become concerned someone else might be harmed, the police could be called. “Certainly at any time the PACT team is responding, should a situation escalate, then of course police will be called in to assist,” Ms. Navarro said.

“Many times our local police departments get calls from the community that are really social services related,” Ms. Navarro said, noting that a lot of calls come from residents or business owners who may be genuinely concerned about the well being of a homeless person. “It doesn’t necessarily involve any potential crime, or any potential concern of violence, and so those types of calls and situations are appropriate to have a mental health professional [respond] who can accesses the situation.”

At the November 5 Police Commission meeting, Mr. Smith’s official announcement of the PACT program was met with general approval.

“This is a game changer for the community and it really is the future. I am sure there is a evolution to it, but what a great start,” Commissioner John Perez said.

Commissioner Jon Strash expressed concern that PACT would not be available at night, a time when many calls for mental health services are likely to occur.

Ms. Navarro told the COURIER that similar programs throughout the county work during daytime hours, so PACT was set up to mirror what is already in place. However, there will be flexibility to let the program evolve as it is implemented.

“Any time you start a new program, you start with your best guess and a framework. This is how the other mental evaluation teams throughout the county work, and this is the model for now. When we get in there on the ground, we are constantly evaluating and asking ‘is this working or not working?’”

Ms. Navarro said PACT will also support the city of Claremont’s overall health and wellness, by being able to more effectively follow up if a resident has to be hospitalized because of a mental health crisis.

In this situation the officer who processed the involuntary psychiatric hospitalization can offer that person’s family the services of PACT to follow up and assist them with Tri-City’s resources.

“That’s another piece of the PACT program being able to more consistently and efficiently follow through with the after hours and weekend crises so that we can reduce that revolving door,” she said.

Officials with Tri-City are developing a memorandum of understanding which will go before its board this month and will be presented to the Claremont City Council soon after.

“We are just really thrilled that our team will be out there providing their expert level of care and compassion to the city of Claremont on a daily basis and in a more consistent way,” Ms. Navarro said.

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