The Santa Maria Police Department is working to strengthen its mental health response and services.
Since January, according to the Santa Maria Police Department, approximately 400 calls have been identified as mental health-related.
Crisis Intervention Officer Max Shaffer has been the only officer fully dedicated to mental health response and services.
"If it's someone I know that I have dealt with a bunch that I feel comfortable with, I am fine going out by myself. If it's an unknown or a new problem that we don't know about, I do go out with a patrol officer just in case,” Shaffer said.
Shaffer says he’ll soon be joined by a clinician from the Santa Barbara County Behavioral Wellness Department to form a co-response team. Something Chief Marc Schneider has wanted to do since he began his role as chief.
"In Santa Maria, unfortunately, there are lots of folks who have mental health-related issues and people in crisis and it impacts the officers. The officers respond and sometimes those calls can take a while and sometimes the results aren't what we would hope for,” Chief Schneider said.
He's hoping that in the next two or three months the process of finalizing a memorandum with the Santa Barbara County Department of Behavioral Wellness will be completed. A clinician would then be able to assist Officer Shaffer and they would work closely together 40 hours a week.
Shaffer says as he waits for his new partner, he will continue to maintain connections with residents he's helped in the past.
“I think that's probably one of the most important parts of the program, is the following up, it's getting to know them. They know who you are you are not just some random officer. They've dealt with you before, there's a trust issue there, so that is the biggest part of it, building that relationship,” Shaffer said.
This would be the fifth co-response team in the county between law enforcement and Behavioral Wellness with three teams already in the sheriff's office and another in the Santa Barbara Police Department.
"Anything that we can do at the police department to improve it for our community is our hope. We don't think we are going to be the complete fix. There needs to be a lot of components but I think this is the step in the right direction for the community and for the police department,” Schneider said.
The police department also says they've allocated about $90,000 in additional budget funds to purchase a new unmarked vehicle specifically for mental health response.
Schneider says the unmarked vehicle will allow the officer and clinician to respond to those in a mental health crisis in a nonthreatening way.
"To put that person that's going through that crisis at ease," Chief Schneider explained. "Patrol cars are sometimes necessary and that's what we would normally use but if we can avoid having a patrol car being present and it helps that contact go much smoother, I think that's what our goal is.”
Schneider adds he's seen other areas that have a similar program be more successful with that approach.