West Hollywood’s Public Safety Commission received a presentation regarding a proposed Behavioral Crisis Response Unit — a third emergency service operating independently and in collaboration with the West Hollywood Sheriff’s Department and West Hollywood Fire stations — to help address disturbances related to the city’s unhoused population.
The unit, according to city staff, would free up law enforcement and emergency services to focus on crime- and medical-related issues instead of behavioral issues, such as substance abuse and mental health, while diverting people away from incarceration.
“It’s clear that there’s an opportunity to enhance crisis services by broadening the expertise of first responders,” said Corri Planck, WeHo’s Strategic Initiatives Manager.
City staff are researching the feasibility of developing a new local phone number for all Behavioral Health Unit crisis response requests. That’s in addition to the state and federal efforts to establish a new 988 number to connect directly with suicide prevention support and other services.
The commissioners seemed wary of revamping the current system, and doubtful that the many elements required for the new department to work would ever be in place.
“Many of our residents call the direct sheriff’s station number instead of 9-1-1,” said Commissioner Kerri Balbone. “How would this integrate” with a new emergency number, she asked.
“The dispatch component is the most challenging. The ultimate goal is that there’s no wrong door to get your needs met,” said Elizabeth Anderson from WeHo Strategic Initiatives.
Balbone wondered where the line would be drawn between threat and non-threat — which instances would the crisis unit be needed, and when would the sheriff?
Commissioner Robert B. Oliver felt the need for suspects to submit voluntarily to the crisis unit would be problematic.
“Essentially, the people who need it the most may not be the people who accept the services voluntarily,” he said. “How effective can they be if it requires people to accept services?”
Commissioner Danny Roman was especially vocal in his opposition to the program.
“I’m trying to be positive with all this stuff but I think that the major problem here with this program is that if you don’t have a place to put these people, there’s no point for any of this, just stop all of this because it’s not going to go anywhere. These people are back on the street the next morning,” he said.
He especially doubted dispatch’s ability to distinguish the types of threats.
“When you’re talking about dispatchers, the 911 dispatchers, in West Hollywood don’t even know who Block by Block is they have no idea what that program is, they have no idea who they are, so now you’re asking them on top of that to now get to know this other program and to be able to dispatch calls from here — ‘oh this is a criminal, oh this is a mental health person’ — it’s just impossible. I’ve been living here for 20 year, I own two businesses here. It’s never, ever ever gonna work.”