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San Luis Obispo adds mental health crisis teams to address mental & substance abuse calls

The City of San Luis Obispo
The Community Action Team (CAT) pairs law enforcement with mental health workers to handle calls for service involving potential mental and substance abuse crisis'

As cities across the country grapple with the issue of police responding to mental health and substance abuse crisis related calls, the city of San Luis Obispo is expanding on one program — and creating another — to help shift intervention away from law enforcement, and into the hands of health-related experts.

At their last council meeting, the City of San Luis Obispo approved a budget to add a second Community Action Team, also known as CAT.

Kelsey Nocket, the city's homelessness response manager, said CAT is comprised of two people — a police officer paired with a mental health clinician.

The two respond to 9-1-1 as well as non-emergency dispatch related calls where people may be suffering from a potential mental health or substance abuse crisis. 

“We’ve seen that this is proven effective," Nocket said. "And we want to make sure that we have the capacity for an influx of calls.”

Nocket said as an example, CAT recently handled a call where a business requested an officer because someone was acting belligerent at their business, but the individual appeared to be under the influence of something.

In a case like that, the team tries to assess what the underlying issue may be, and see if the individual would be receptive to a service such as a detox or mental health treatment center, instead of taking them to a jail cell.

“This is a balance of compassion with enforcement," Nocket said. "We want to act in compassion first, and then enforce where necessary.”

The city will also be launching a Mobile Crisis Unit come next Fall. The unit will be an EMT paired with a mental health counselor who will respond to calls where a non-criminal crisis may be unfolding.

An example would be if an individual is feeling suicidal and they hurt themselves, the Mobile Crisis Unit would be equipped to handle both the medical and psychiatric issues.

Nocket said the Mobile Unit will also be proactive in checking into homeless encampments for any medical or mental health related issues individuals may be experiencing.

Nocket said these are just two of many mental and substance abuse programs the city is looking into to help shift calls of this nature away from uniformed officers, and onto social and mental health workers.

“I think it's a valuable time for us to assess where we can make improvements," Nocket said. "So stay tuned, there is more to come. But for now, we are excited about extending this program and getting our mobile crisis unit up.”

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

Angel Russell is a former KCBX News reporter who started her career in journalism as a reporter and producer for KREX on Colorado's Western Slope; she later moved to the Central Coast to work for KSBY as weekend anchor and weekday reporter. She holds a BA in journalism from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, and playing guitar and piano.