Tulare County introduces mental health response teams

Tulare County Sheriff’s Office, Health and Human Services Agency adding mental health co-response teams, showcased at Aug. 30 board of supervisors meeting

TULARE COUNTY – The Tulare County Sheriff’s Office (TCSO) and Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA) say they’ve seen a steady increase in mental health crises over the last two years. The two agencies now plan to develop a co-response team to safely and effectively de-escalate mental health crisis situations.

Sheriff Mike Boudreaux kicked off the presentation at the Aug. 30 Tulare County Board of Supervisors meeting.

“Today is really an exciting day for us at the Sheriff’s Office,” Boudreaux said. “A few months back, what we began to recognize in the Sheriff’s Office…for several years bringing us to this point is the severity of mental health and mental health issues not only within our community but within our jail system.”

This is the same Sheriff Mike Boudreaux named in a federal lawsuit for allegedly covering for then-Deputy Richard “Teflon Rich” Ramirez—earning the nickname from feeling he was above the law and protected by his fellow officers, who in July was sentenced to five years in prison for domestic violence, found by a jury to be a habitual abuser repeating a pattern of violence against those closest to him—suppressing reports and promoting a culture of looking the other way at TCSO.

Boudreaux said the Sheriff’s Office responded to over 500 calls focused on issues of mental health in 2020 alone. The Sheriff’s Office Homeless Enforcement Assistance Response Team (HEART), a relatively new unit, was created as a response to the uptick in mental health response needs in the county to both respond to criminal activity and provide services to those experiencing homelessness, but that hasn’t been enough.

“There was a void when it came to us as law enforcement officers and providing public safety when we found that there was no criminal act,” Boudreaux said. “When there is not a criminal act and law enforcement is there, what is the next step?”

Boudreaux questioned whether these situations law enforcement officers find themselves in could be de-escalated if there were someone present who was more properly trained in addressing mental health issues. Enter the co-response teams, the partnership between TCSO and Tulare County HHSA that will attempt to breach the gap between law enforcement and mental health services.

Modeled after San Diego County’s Psychiatric Emergency Response Team (PERT), the Tulare County co-response teams will have a sheriff’s deputy and a licensed HHSA clinical social worker riding in the same unit responding to calls for behavioral health or crisis needs, screened by TCSO dispatch. The deputy will respond to the person in crisis and determine the safety of the situation prior to introducing the HHSA clinical social worker. After the social worker conducts a crisis evaluation and a behavioral health assessment, they will offer referrals or other assistance, including inpatient hospitalization if needed, with the goal of connecting individuals to the least restrictive level of care when possible and avoiding unnecessary hospitalization and incarceration.

Boudreaux has assigned four deputies to work on the co-response teams with health and human services. Natalie Bolin, deputy director of clinical services at HHSA’s mental health branch, said the primary goal in the field is to de-escalate the situation.

“Hospitalizations are very traumatizing, and we want to alleviate that entry into our mental health system,” Bolin said.

San Diego County’s PERT program started around 20 years ago, and Tulare County has some catching up to do to match PERT’s rate of stopping hospitalizations on calls they go out on by 45%.

“That’s pretty impressive, and that’s definitely our goal,” Bolin said.

Supervisor Larry Micari, who spent a career in law enforcement, much of it with TCSO, shared his excitement for the co-response teams, an initiative he said is long overdue.

“This is what makes me proud to be a TCSO deputy,” Micari said. “I foresee this freeing up resources to provide better service to the community, because deputies won’t be tied up, and I see the people that need help will receive it much better…I see this being an enormous success and a benefit to our community as a whole.”

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