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Mark Twain is credited with apologizing to a friend for sending a long letter because he didn’t have time to write a short one. With that in mind, I would like to apologize to the reader for a long chronology of Measure B, because a short letter would not give justice to the genesis of what Mendocino County possesses.
In 2009, during the economic downturn, CEO Angelo and I had a public display of emotions where I showed dismay at her for suggesting that I lay off 25 Deputy Sheriff’s to balance the budget. Such a far-fetched suggestion was beyond reasonable and I clearly and publicly denounced such a recommendation. After some board room bantering, the chair of the BOS recommended a 15 minute recess, and directed the CEO and I to privately discuss our differences. This turned into our “Monday Morning Meeting”, every Monday at 8:30. This created a much better relationship between the CEO’s office and the Sheriff’s Office. As we all know, communication makes better relationships.
I had worked for MCSO since 1985, prior to the demise of the Psychiatric Health Facility (referred to as a PHF, or “Puff”) and I experienced the 1991 dismantling of the County PHF wherein the Mental Health Department tacitly transferred additional duties to law enforcement, after the State of California decided to “realign” mental health services. History has shown that this realignment has increased law enforcements role in emergency mental health crisis and has relieved the very agency which is trained for this, the Department of Behavior Health. No additional funding was transferred to law enforcement, just the transfer of some basic duties which formally were performed by the Dept. Of Mental Health (presently referred to as the Behavioral Health Division of Social Services).
In 2014, after 8 years of frustration with the expectation that law enforcement deal with the day-to-day mental health crisis’s throughout our county, I sat down with the CEO on a Monday morning and asked a simple question: “ Why don’t we have a PHF?”. I saw this as a reasonable question, with the intent of removing law enforcement from the crisis drivers seat, and allow law enforcement to return to enforcing laws. The CEO’s answer was short, poignant and direct: “Sheriff, we can’t afford to build it and we don’t have the funds”. That was a fair answer, and the answer which drove me to personally collect 3,000 signatures and have other supporters collect over 1,500 signatures to get Measures AG and AH on the ballot.
This county-wide measure failed by approx. 100 votes. The BOS put Measure B on the ballot for the next election, and I personally collected contributions and campaigned for the passage of Measure B. As you may remember, over 160 signs were put up throughout the county and a letter-writing campaign was started to our newspapers so we could pass “Measure B, for Better Mental Health”. I was joined by a small group of citizens who met weekly with one goal in mind: to improve the mental health of our county and get a PHF facility up and running. 83% of the voters agreed with us, and passed a small sales tax which will build a brick and mortar PHF and will forever add additional funds to the Department of Mental Health to improve Mental Health Services. The CEO’s concern(s) of not having the necessary funds had been eliminated. A bright future was forecast for allowing our hospital emergency departments to have beds freed up and a PHF was forthcoming.
Now for the reality. Almost 4 years later, we have no clear direction on building a PHF and the Behavior Health Department continues to rely on law enforcement to handle the majority of mental health crisis’s. As I said during the initial campaigns “ You wouldn’t call a plumber when your house is on fire, so why do we call law enforcement when a mental health patient is having a crisis. We need to send a mental health professional”. My words continue to ring true and unfortunately, I will follow up with “I told you so” when a true crisis strikes.
Sheriff Kendall and UPD Chief Wyatt have implored the Measure B committee to fully institute a street response for mental health professionals, and they have both agreed to have a paid responder to join these professionals. Why hasn’t the county hired the others? Why are law enforcement officers continuing to be asked (demanded) to respond to mental health crisis’s? Many times, there are no laws being violated yet the Behavioral Health Department has no professionals ready to respond, even during the work hours M-F, 8-5. This has to change. Unless the BOS wants to put the Behavior Health Department under the tutelage of the Sheriff’s Office (I’m not encouraging this), I don’t see a vast improvement. Let’s be clear, marijuana is NOT the number 1 problem in our county, the lack of Mental Health services is our number 1 problem. Please read that sentence again.
It is time that all five of our BOS’s put Mental Health services as the first item on every agenda they have. The more we discuss our problem, the closer we are to a solution. We can’t ignore it and then scream at law enforcement for merely doing someone else’s job. While I am concerned about the cost of liability, my primary concern is the improved care of victims of mental illness. I write this as a brother of a mental health victim who chose to take his own life in 2005 (not in Mendocino County).
As I said at the beginning of this, I’m sorry for the length of this letter. It is time that we start seeing letters from citizens who are supportive of the Behavioral Health Department taking the reins of all behavior health crisis’s in every corner of our county. Simply saying that a change is in the future is no longer believable. Action is what we need, and don’t blame the Measure B committee for this failure. The BOS and the Behavioral Health Department can make a difference. Law enforcement will be there to help, but not to be the sacrificial cow when something goes wrong.
Member of Measure B