Mental Evaluation Teams: A collaboration for de-escalation

Deputies work to peacefully resolve a standoff situation in Castaic. Photo courtesy of the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff's Station.
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While mental health issues remain a challenge nationwide amid the COVID-19 pandemic, law enforcement and medical experts discussed progress for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Mental Evaluation Teams at a recent community meeting.

The Sheriff’s Department’s Mental Evaluation Teams, which pair a specially trained deputy with a licensed mental health clinician, represent a “perfect example” of the impact cooperation between agencies can have on solving difficult problems, said Larry Schallert, assistant director of Student Health & Wellness/Mental Health at College of the Canyons.

“The MET, to me, is the perfect example of a community collaboration, where you’re training the sheriff, but you’re also bringing in mental health people, and you’re bringing in the rest of the community collaboratively to deal with mental health issues in the community,” said Schallert, who was named Social Worker of the Year for California in 2019. “They’re fantastic.”

The team is among several representatives from the Sheriff’s Department who regularly attend local Suicide Prevention, Postvention and Wellness Committee meetings hosted by the college — a different collaboration, but one with a similar aim — getting people in crisis with mental health concerns the help they need.

Lt. John Gannon, who oversees the METs, wrote the MET program was part of a department-wide focus on “prioritizing de-escalation training for patrol personnel,” in an email Monday, in which he discussed the committee report. 

In fact, it would be harder to achieve a greater impact than the one MET can claim, according to Gannon: “When MET personnel are involved in the calls, there is a 98% likelihood that client will not be arrested, but will instead be taken to a community health care provider for crisis stabilization treatment.”

One of the biggest obstacles facing the team’s future success and growth is one facing the entire department: a budget discrepancy between what Sheriff Alex Villanueva has requested for operations and what the L.A. County Board of Supervisors have planned for funding.

However, a big positive for the teams has been the support of Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who represents the 5th District, which includes the Santa Clarita Valley, Gannon said.

Since the establishment of the first four countywide teams based out of San Gabriel Valley in 2015, Barger supported the addition of four METs dedicated specifically to the Santa Clarita Valley, 20 hours a day, from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. Gannon is hopeful that the “graveyard” 2-6 a.m. shift will have coverage soon, but pending revenue concerns for L.A. County are putting many programs at risk.

While the countywide number of crisis calls has risen by nearly 60% countywide over the past six years, with North L.A. County traditionally having a higher percentage of those calls, per officials, the METs’ ETA to calls countywide is now roughly 19 minutes, with most calls being answered in half that time.

The value to the community is not only more efficient de-escalation at the scene of a crisis, but also more people getting help and fewer people in jail who maybe don’t need to be, Schallert said. The teams also create support systems for the people they help, although a lot of that is behind the scenes.

Gannon mentioned the care his teams take as a point of pride for the program, mentioning the unmarked cars and, in general, the low profile team members keep so as to make their patients — which isn’t a term traditionally associated with a law enforcement response — feel less distressed, another de-escalation consideration that goes with hundreds of hours of training.

“The downside to MET being low-key is that the public may not see the amazing good work and extraordinary empathy and kindness our personnel provide to caretakers and patients,” Gannon wrote Monday. “We are out of sight — by design.”

Anyone looking for mental health resources in the Santa Clarita Valley can visit BeTheDifferenceSCV.org. 

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