Goodness Report, News

Police reform: In Huntington Beach, non-criminal mental emergencies go to Be Well OC

October 13, 2021
The medical crisis intervention experiment is based on a long-standing program in Oregon. Two-man crew rolls out in a big blue van determined to bring hope and help.

By Theresa Walker, Orange County Register

The call came in around noon, on the last Tuesday of September, a bit after Jimmy Mun and Phillip Oh started their shift.

A man was at a house in Huntington Beach, talking about ending his life. He battles mental illness and had recently stopped taking his medication. His sister was scared, so she placed the call.

There was no threat of violence to anyone else; no weapon, no crime. Still, it was the kind of call that, for decades, has been handled by police.

Instead, this time — and for at least the next year — the call was dispatched to Be Well OC, a new, experimental mobile response team aimed at helping people in Huntington Beach who are experiencing a non-criminal mental health crisis. Mun and Oh, one of the two-person teams staffing the Be Well Ford Transit van, are trained in emergency medicine and mental health, not police work.

So they rolled out to the house and the troubled man and his frightened sister.

For 20 minutes they calmly spoke with — and listened to — the man. Then he climbed into the back the van, buckled himself into one of the bucket seats, and awaited transport to the Be Well OC mental health hub in Orange. There, he would see counselors, not cops.

It’s unclear if he saw the promise written on the side of the big blue van: “Hope Happens Here.”

Brisk business

For Mun (pronounced like “moon”) and Oh, that call was the start of a 12-hour shift. Their day would end around midnight, and in similar fashion.

This time, a woman was calling about her husband. He, too, was possibly suicidal. But this man didn’t want to get into the van and, since he wasn’t “5150” — meaning he wasn’t an immediate danger to himself or others — he could not be placed in an involuntary, 72-hour hold for psychiatric evaluation. So Mun and Oh left him with their card and a promise to help. All he had to do was contact them.

In the hours between those two calls, Mun and Oh took one man from the Huntington Beach jail to the Be Well campus and another to a different crisis stabilization center. A fifth man was taken to a hospital.

Anthony Delgado, Be Well’s director of mobile response services, said some shifts can involve as many as 10 calls. “Some days, you’re back to back.”

Seven days a week

Huntington Beach was the first city in Orange County to contract with Be Well for a mobile response team. Under a $1.5 million, one-year pilot program, the mission is to handle calls that don’t require police officers or a paramedic from the fire department. Right now, Be Well’s presence in Huntington Beach involves two, two-person teams who rotate 12-hour shifts, seven days a week.

When calls are at a lull, the crisis management teams are not. They drive the streets, going to homeless encampments to connect with people who might be receptive to their help or simply looking for people who appear to be in some type of distress.

They are supported by their supervisor, Lance Lindgren, formerly a supervisor with the county’s crisis intervention services, and another case manager, who make follow-up calls from their office.

The idea of sending non-emergency response teams to help the mentally ill is part of a growing trend, locally and around the country, in the wake of calls to reduce the number of encounters involving police and unarmed mentally ill people. Some of those encounters result in the use of deadly force, while many more produce costly overuse of emergency rooms and jails.

It’s not just police reformers seeking the change. Law enforcement agencies increasingly say they are overburdened, dealing with calls that have more to do with social ills than with crime or public safety.

The Be Well team began a soft launch in Huntington Beach in early August. Other cities are in various stages of exploring the idea; Garden Grove and Newport Beach have inked contracts while Anaheim and Irvine are in discussions to do so.

The goal, throughout, is to help people deal with mental health issues, homelessness, substance abuse, suicidal thoughts, non-violent family disputes, or those in need of a welfare check. The Be Well campus in Orange, one of at least three centers planned for different parts of the county, is designed as a soft place for some of those folks to land. Services include evaluations, a sobering station, counseling and referrals, and longer-term recovery programs.

The mobile crisis teams, a mix of licensed psychiatric technicians and medical technicians, bring the patience and empathy of counselors rather than the enforcement mentality of police officers.

Mun and Oh, a part-time EMT with the city fire department, dress in matching dark blue-grey slacks and polo shirts with “Be Well” stitched over the left breast. They don’t carry guns, electro-shock weapons or pepper spray. They take notes on a palm-sized Rocketbook that is wipeable and can be scanned to relay information electronically, although they haven’t used that function.

Their van is equipped with basic medical supplies, along with water, snacks and socks. There are four seats in back and, if a patient’s relative wants, they can ride along to the Be Well campus or to another stabilization center. There’s a wheelchair ramp. The van also has a coded box with a master key inside that will open the entrance to any gated community in the city, similar to what police carry.

Sometimes, Be Wall calls are routed from 911 dispatchers; others come from a non-emergency line. The city’s dispatch center gets an estimated 15,000 mental-health related calls a year, but Delgado said the Be Well team could be contacted about virtually anything.

“You get a lot of calls about someone sleeping on a bus bench and he looks dead,” Delgado said.

“Or there’s a guy swinging his arms wildly in a parking lot. People ask, ‘Do you respond to the homeless?’ Yes, if they’re in crisis.”

There to help

The word Hope on the side of the van has a double meaning. That’s also the acronym for the program: “Helping People Out Everywhere.” The Be Well teams have gone to homes in well-appointed neighborhoods, city parks, beaches, gas stations, freeway underpasses.

At times, they’re summoned by police in the field. That’s the case with Mun and Oh’s second call of the day, at 2:35 p.m. Mun answered, scribbling in his Rocketbook and saying “we’ll be there right away.”

Within 10 minutes, they’ve driven six miles from the Civic Center to the roadside eatery Woody’s Diner on Warner Avenue. Two Huntington Beach Police SUVs were parked at the curb. In the parking lot, three officers waited near a man who sat on a bench, hands cuffed behind his back. A training officer explained that no crime had been committed, but the man was being restrained  because he had been darting in and out of traffic.

According to the officer, the man told police he was bipolar and possibly schizophrenic. He was being cooperative, but police said they had taken three calls over a two-hour period from people saying someone with his description was being loud and aggressive to people walking by. He’d been sleeping in Woody’s bathroom and wouldn’t let anyone else in. His clothes were scruffy, one leg of his torn and smudged jeans rolled up to his knee.

Mun and Oh squatted to talk to him. He was moved from the bench to the tailgate of the Be Well van. Uncuffed, he drank some of the water they gave him. They learned that he was 32 and had been homeless for some time. He told them he takes several psychiatric medications, but not for the past three weeks. He’d been drinking. He said he didn’t want to be hospitalized.

“If you had your medication, would you take it?” Mun asked him.

“Yes,” he answered in the Southern drawl of his native Alabama.

Oh tells him they can take him where he can get some help and then he’d be free to go. The man gets angry.

“They just keep calling the police on me and I didn’t do s–t.”

The training officer tells the man that he won’t go to jail if he leaves with “these nice people.” Instead, “You’re going to get help.”

“You’ll get a safe place to sleep,” Oh tells him.

The man, arms crossed in a tight grip of his shoulders, appeared anguished: “Really, I don’t know what to do.”

Because he has suffered seizures in the past, a paramedic was called. The man alternated between talking about his daughter and growling and cursing at the people trying to help him — the police, the Be Well team, the paramedic — saying they only wanted to take him to jail.

The man was dehydrated and wobbly on his feet, and ended up being taken to a hospital in an ambulance. But before that happened, Oh gave him a Be Well card and encouraged him to call: “We are not the police. We’re with the Hope team.”

He never called. The Be Well team, in the days since, has tried to find him, but no luck. Maybe they will spot him one day from their van.


Orange County's Creative Communications Agency