Thousands of people seeking help did not get a police response. That’s a good thing.

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Article by Tammy Murga  |  Read full article in the San Diego Union-Tribune

Three years ago, the county launched a pilot program to replace ill-equipped law enforcement officials with mental health experts for those in crisis.

The effort started small with just a handful of professionals responding to calls in North County. But it quickly expanded. Today, there are nearly four dozen Mobile Crisis Response Teams countywide handling hundreds of calls for nonviolent emergencies each month.

And the program continues to grow. Crisis teams are now extending their reach to college campuses, a tribal community and, soon, grade schools and Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton.

Though still fairly new, county officials say the program is proving to be one of the county’s most promising models in its effort to overhaul the region’s mental health system, especially at a time when California is working to do the same.

MCRTs work around the clock, seven days a week, to help people experiencing a substance use or mental health crisis. Each team has a case manager, mental health clinician and a peer support specialist. The county contracts with Exodus Recovery, Inc. and Telecare Corp. to run the program.

Police and deputies respond annually to tens of thousands of calls about people in mental health crisis. They have Psychiatric Emergency Response Teams, or PERT, (mental health clinicians paired with uniformed officers). However, critics have long argued that law enforcement is most likely to escalate these types of emergencies. So, teams were designed to offer those in need a person-centered service while freeing up law enforcement resources.

County data shows that MCRTs are making an impact.

Between July 2023 and January, crisis teams responded to 3,365 calls countywide, a 43 percent increase from the previous six months and a 20 percent jump from all of 2022. The rise in calls is likely due to outreach about the program, county officials said.

Of those 3,365 calls, about 74 percent were from the Access and Crisis Line, or 988, and nearly 30 percent were from law enforcement agencies.

Less than 2 percent of calls from July to January were diverted to law enforcement.

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