CHICO, Calif. – A little over two years ago, Butte County Behavioral Health began a partnership with the Chico Police Department to provide trained counselors to go on calls when an officer might need help involving a mental health crisis.
Action News Now Morning Anchor Julia Yarbough wanted to find out if that teamwork approach to helping those in need, is working.
Chico Police Sergeant Paul Ratto, is a 17-year veteran of the department. He says officers today are more educated about the realities of mental illness and receive more training in how to de-escalate situations.
On any given day, Sgt. Ratto says he responds to numerous calls. Some involve a type of crime, but more often, he says he is answering a call for someone who needs help.
“We’re learning together. Officers have really gotten better in how we deal with different illnesses and disabilities. For instance, we now know if they are autistic, they may not like it when we put hands on them or restrain them,” explains Sgt. Ratto.
“It’s going to take more time to interact with someone but we are more aware and have a better understanding of what someone on the other side is experiencing and how they may be able to respond.”
During the three hours, Yarbough joined Sgt. Ratto, several calls for assistance came in.
One involved a homeless individual, found sleeping in the middle of a bike path.
Sgt. Ratto made contact, as the man if he was aware of local services and if he needed any medical attention. Sgt. Ratto asked him how long he had been living on the street. The answer? Almost two years. In this case, the man said he did not need help nor wanted mental health assistance.
Another call came in from Bidwell Park. Once officers arrived, they found a young, homeless woman, in a verbal argument with her boyfriend; also a homeless individual.
Sgt. Ratto, joined by a handful of other officers, talked with the young woman to make sure she was okay, and asked if she needed assistance. Officers arrested her boyfriend, on an outstanding warrant.
In this case, the young woman said she did not need mental health services, despite crying while talking with officers about her situation.
When a call does come in that requires a more intense mental health response, Chico Police have the option of asking for additional help, from Butte County Behavioral Health.
The next call fit that bill. Sgt. Ratto responded to a call, of a man in some kind of mental health crisis. Officers responding worried the man might be capable of hurting himself.
A counselor from the Mobile Crisis Team arrived on scene. Pamela DeCamp has been with the agency for almost eight years. As a mental health counselor, her job is to help talk a client through a crisis.
DeCamp arrived to the scene, to get a short briefing from Sgt. Ratto, telling her the man had made some comments indicating he might want to hurt himself.
DeCamp says the partnership between Chico Police and counselors has been invaluable in helping those who otherwise might not get the assistance they need.
“In the past, law enforcement had few options,” explains DeCamp. “It was take them in or let them go. Now we can connect if they’re anywhere in-between and help them get what they need and get out of the cycle of crisis.”
Yarbough also asked Sgt. Ratto if the impacts of the covid-19 pandemic had placed additional strain on those struggling with mental health issues.
“Yes, we’re experiencing a lot more calls of service as it pertains to people in mental health crisis.”
But, Sgt. Ratto says because officers are working more closely with counselors, they are better equipped to respond and bringing a situation to a peaceful end, rather than a dangerous confrontation.
“I think our citizens and rightfully so, are demanding law enforcement understand people living with mental health diagnosis,” says Sgt. Ratto.
“There’s been a lot of change since I started 17 years ago. We are getting better. There is still a lot of emphasis on incidents when they go wrong and when we have to use force against someone in crisis. It does happen and it’s unfortunate. But the successes we are having now on a daily basis with a crisis just adds to our mission in keeping people safe.”
DeCamp says the program is successful, saying calls for service over the past three months were up 30-percent from the same period last year.
Sgt. Ratto believes, law enforcement as a profession still has a long way to go in effectively dealing with mental health crisis situations.
But, says he would like to see more departments take this type of approach. He says he hopes the Chico Police Department can expand the program to 24-hours a day.