Claremont evaluates pilot for mental health emergency response team

The outside of the Claremont Police Department
Claremont is evaluating a pilot mental health response team which aims to provide additional resources to police responses in certain situations. (Cecilia Ransburg • The Student Life)

As towns and cities across the country struggle with the goals of their public safety spending, some are working to address the need for mental health professionals to respond to non-criminal police calls. Claremont is in the process of doing just that.

Even before calls for police reform gained traction and spread nationwide over the summer of 2020, Claremont Police Chief Shelly Vander Veen was working to implement a Psychiatric Assessment Care Team (PACT) for the city, according to Mayor Jennifer Stark PZ ’98.

The team started in April after the program was approved as a pilot in February, with PACT working from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays.

“PACT was developed to respond to non-violent, non-criminal calls for assistance received through CPD’s dispatch center involving mental health related concerns,” Vander Veen explained at a Sept. 28 City Council meeting, where the council reviewed the program’s first six months in action. “The goal is to utilize police resources more effectively and efficiently in our response to mental health needs within Claremont.”

PACT works through a partnership between the Claremont Police Department and the Tri-City Mental Health Authority, which, along with the salaries for the PACT members, is funded by “an arrangement between the State and counties that dedicates portions of Vehicle Licensing Fees and Sales Tax revenues to county health, mental health, and social services programs,” according to the six month evaluation of the program. The funding needed to develop the partnership came from the police department’s budget.

When dispatch receives a call that could be appropriate for PACT, “a watch commander will triage the situation and decide whether the call is best handled by the police, or an officer and the PACT team,” the Claremont Courier reported last spring. An officer can additionally request PACT’s assistance after responding to a call if it appears mental health assistance may be necessary to address the issue at hand.

PACT’s responsibilities include following up with those it interacts with on their calls, and with those responded to by officers during the time PACT does not work.

Vander Veen, who will retire next month after nearly five years as chief, was surprised by how busy the team has been over the past six months.

“I originally questioned whether we would have enough activity to keep the team active,” Vander Veen told the council. But she said the team’s initial work and follow up work “has shown to keep the team busy throughout their shifts.”

The six-month review Vander Veen submitted to the city manager notes the multiple achievements the program has accomplished. 

“With the PACT in place, the number of [involuntary psychiatric] holds written by officers has been reduced,” Vander Veen’s report says. 

Los Angeles County defines involuntary holds, also known as 5150 holds, as a 72-hour period in which someone who is in “serious need of mental health treatment can be transported to a designated psychiatric inpatient facility for evaluation and treatment … against their will.”

PACT authorized 52 percent of the 50 holds administered during the first four months of the program.

The program has also worked “to provide alternative means to transport an individual on a 5150 hold, rather than being handcuffed and placed in a patrol car,” Vander Veen’s report said. The team can have individuals transported via ambulance instead, and this has been the mode of transport for 60 percent of involuntary psychiatric holds within the program’s first four months, the report said.

“I’m very pleased,” Stark said in an interview with TSL. She sees responses to non-violent, non-criminal calls as “much better suited to mental health professionals, who have the requisite training, and can assist, because these are medical issues.”

Stark said she was hopeful about this initial change to Claremont’s social services institutions. 

“Police officers are under a lot of strain and a lot of criticism is coming to that profession because they are not adequately equipped or trained … to go into mental health services, but it keeps landing on them,” Stark said.

Stark laid out two paths for addressing officers’ gaps on mental health issues.

“We either need to broaden what ‘public safety’ means, and have it be ‘mental health, public safety,’” she said, “or we need to figure out a way that police officers aren’t addressing the complicated issues of addiction, mental illness, being unsheltered, and how those create a kind of chronic problem for some individuals.”

Kaia Smith SC ’23, who is on the leadership of Blend — Scripps’ mixed-race affinity group — expressed concern that a police officer accompanies PACT members on calls. 

Rather than keeping the PACT members safe, Smith said, “the presence of the police officer could create the danger because there’s a pre-existing, violent relationship between police and homeless communities and other communities that are likely to be affected.”

Smith said the most pressing issues for her are the end result of the program and, more generally, the distribution of public service resources.

“I think the biggest thing … is whether this is leading towards the expansion of the police in the incorporation of mental health services, or … towards mental health services replacing police response,” she said. 

If mental health responses have to go through or are overseen by the police, Smith thinks “that’s kind of contributing to this system.”

PACT continues to be reviewed, Stark said, and students and residents can still contribute their input to shape how the program progresses.

“It’s exceptionally important to me that the people who come to study here know that they are living in a town that really cares about being a part of the future that they want to help lead,” she said. 

And Smith hopes the 5Cs take advantage of their unique position to create change in Claremont.

“I definitely think the colleges could leverage their position in the community to demand bigger changes as well,” she said. “I also think that partnerships between the colleges and police have been and continue to be an issue for students, especially Black students on campus. That is not something [the] college administrations have reckoned with.”

Stark said she understands that students “want to see their world move in a certain direction.” 

“I think that that is part of a huge asset for Claremont, because we want to also be that place,” she said. “We want to make the students feel proud that we are trying to be a part of the changes they want to see in the world.”

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