By Mary O’KEEFE
In one of her first acts since taking office, Los Angeles County Supervisor Fifth District Kathryn Barger requested and received approval to double the number of Mental Evaluation Teams (MET) and to develop a mental health triage help desk.
Teams consist of a mental health clinician paired with a law enforcement officer who respond to emergency calls involving psychiatric crisis or critical incidents to provide immediate assistance to those in need.
While campaigning for the supervisor’s seat, Barger spoke of this pilot program and the advantages of being proactive in helping those who need mental health services. The program is especially helpful for those people who find themselves trapped in a cycle of being detained by law enforcement and placed on a mental evaluation hold, then find themselves back out on the streets 24-to-48 hours later and then having another issue when law enforcement puts them back on an evaluation hold.
“These people are high utilizers,” said Officer James Colvin, Glendale Police Dept., of those who are part of this cycle.
Colvin has been part of the MET since mid-2016. The department has yet to be assigned a clinician but that hasn’t stopped Colvin from training and working in the field. He said the time has been well spent, learning more about the program and about the people who will be advantaged by MET.
“I have more time to get to know the families better,” Colvin said.
The pilot program has shown that by having a team dedicated to mental health issues there has been an improvement in law enforcement response times and individuals get the help they need. It is also cost-effective for the taxpayer as it reduces the number of emergency calls and provides follow-up for those who need help to get the help, said Tony Bell, spokesman for Barger’s office.
“The board of supervisors voted to more than double the [number of program teams] from  in the initial program to 23,” Bell added.
For Colvin, the program, even without a clinician, has been a strong example of how law enforcement and the community overall can benefit.
In the past, law enforcement would receive a call concerning a person with possible mental health issues. Law enforcement would arrive at the scene, speak to those in the area and attempt to get the situation under control. Many times these encounters turned confrontational and the person was arrested instead of evaluated for medical concerns. Or if police officers determined the person did need mental health evaluation they would order a 5150 (mental health evaluation) and then take that person to a hospital. They would wait – sometimes for hours – for a bed to become available or a clinician to evaluate. This would take officers out of their patrol field.
Now in Glendale most calls concerning a mental health issue will come to Colvin.
“We get a lot of calls and by the time they call the police [the person] is in crisis,” Colvin said.
He has been trained how to approach these types of situations and how to calm people down, then partner them with an agency that can help. If they agree, he can get them into those programs. Through his training he has been able to connect and learn about agencies that are in the area and throughout LA County that work with mental health issues.
“A lot of times [the person in crisis and their families] didn’t know the services were [available],” he said. “Most people aren’t expecting to have these things happen to them in their lives.”
Colvin not only offered guidance to treatment agencies like Didi Hirsch but will also follow up with people on their progress. This helps families who may have found themselves in a situation where MET was needed for the first time and it also helps the homeless.
Colvin said he does deal with the homeless population and, with fellow officer Steven Koszis, is working with a homeless coalition in Glendale to help improve its program. The homeless, many times, are the most in need of MET. It is hoped that the teams will reduce the number of response calls by finding more permanent solutions to the individuals’ issues.
The Los Angeles Sheriff Dept.-Crescenta Valley Station will also be part of the MET program as a full time staff person has been approved for the area.
“The [staff] position is specialized and will not be coming out of our station but from a MET unit,” said Capt. Bill Song, CV Station.
The deputy and clinician will travel throughout the north area that includes the CV Station.
According to a statement from the board of supervisors, Los Angeles County was the first in the nation to develop co-response teams as a pilot program in the early 1990s. Since MET service began in January 1993, the Dept. of Mental Health has partnered with 35 law enforcement agencies, including the Los Angeles Police Dept., to develop more than 80 co-response teams.
MET responded to 1,154 calls for service during FY2015-2016. Of these calls, 64% resulted in hospitalizations for mental health treatment and less than 1% resulted in an arrest, proving that these teams reduce adverse outcomes and prioritize treatment over incarceration.
Colvin continues his outreach to learn more about agencies in the area available to help individuals and families in crisis.