Plug Pulled on Highly Effective Mental-Health Program

Staffing Shortage Dooms Pilot Program that Found Weapons Cache

Plans to transform abandoned juvenile hall to a mental-health facility were determined to be feasible but not ideal.

Paul Wellman (file)

Plans to transform abandoned juvenile hall to a mental-health facility were determined to be feasible but not ideal.

The guy sitting in the plastic chair next to me looked like a thousand solar windstorms had blown through him. The way he held himself suggested another thousand might be lining up. We each knew who the other was. We didn’t talk. We were both there ​— ​waiting outside of Judge Clifford Anderson’s courtroom in the basement of the Santa Barbara Courthouse ​— ​for the same reason: his son.

At that moment, his son ​— ​27 years old, intensely handsome, and said to be off-the-charts smart ​— ​was locked up behind the Plexiglas partition in Judge Anderson’s chambers, dressed in jailhouse orange, and waiting for the next shoe to drop. Prosecutors are insisting he should be held without bail for bombarding an ex-girlfriend with a fusillade of text messages that constitute felonious stalking.

I don’t pretend to know the facts of this case. I do pretend, however, to know the real reason he’s facing these charges.

The short answer has everything to do with guns and mental health.

The longer answer has everything to do with a wildly successful pilot program the county started last September in which a sheriff’s deputy ​— ​James McKarrell ​— ​and a county mental-health-care-crisis outreach worker ​— ​Bradley Crable ​— ​roll out on patrol together. Their focus, among other things, is to help defuse people in the throes of mental-health crisis, making sure bad situations don’t explode even worse than they already have. In the case involving the 27-year-old son in Judge Anderson’s courtroom, McKarrell and Crable ​— ​more bureaucratically known as “The Co-Response Unit of the Sheriff’s Crisis Intervention Team” ​— ​exceeded all expectations.

Despite this, Crable and McKarrell were notified this Monday that the Co-Response unit would be discontinued.

Two Saturdays ago, McKarrell and Crable first encountered the young man behind the glass in Anderson’s courtroom, responding to a call about a person living at home with his parents who’d texted a long and suicidal-sounding message to relatives. What they found blew everyone’s minds. The guy had stockpiled 13 seriously hairy firearms: Glocks, AR-15s, shotguns, long rifles. Some had been custom-made. He had 20,000 rounds of ammunition, body armor, and steel plates for added protection. One of the firearms ​— ​a long rifle ​— ​had been buried in the backyard. All, by the way, were legally registered.

If suicide was the intent, he had enough to take himself out 20,000 times. But that’s not what put law enforcement in a cold sweat. In 2014, Elliot Rodger killed six people and wounded 14 more in Isla Vista. In 2006, former postal worker Jennifer San Marco went on a shooting spree at Goleta’s postal annex, killing eight people, herself included. Mass shootings are not hypothetical possibilities in Santa Barbara. Law enforcement had visions of the man taking a one-way drive to the Chumash Casino ​— ​an accomplished poker player, he had more than $40,000 in winnings in his room ​— ​strapped, packed, and body-armored for one final fling.

It’s entirely possible, as some have suggested, that they overreacted. But who in their right mind can take that chance?

Here’s where having the Co-Response team show up made a huge difference. Law enforcement officers in Santa Barbara County are not allowed to make the finding that someone poses an imminent threat to themselves or to others, known in the parlance as 5150. Santa Barbara remains the only county where this is true. But Crable, because he’s a mobile crisis-outreach worker, could and did. Not only that, the Co-Response Unit made sure the subject was placed in an involuntary hold for up to 72 hours in a state-licensed facility in Las Encinas. That fact legally precludes the young man from owning or possessing any firearms for the next five years. Had he been kept in Cottage Hospital’s psychiatric ER instead ​— ​because it’s not licensed for involuntary holds ​— ​nothing would have legally prevented him from reclaiming his arsenal.

But only for five years. The felony stalking charges were filed to make sure that’s extended to forever. A felony conviction results in a lifetime ban on gun ownership.

This is hardly a typical case for the Co-Response Unit. More typically, they show up after deputies have detained someone in full meltdown mode and are waiting for mental-health backup. Such waits often last three hours or more. Babysitting schizophrenics on meth is not what most deputies signed up for, nor is it a good use of law enforcement. And such waits are hardly beneficial for the people ​— ​who are already having the worst day of their life ​— ​being detained. Situations can escalate from bad to worse to unmanageable. Force can be deployed. People can get hurt. Some get killed. Even if that doesn’t happen, people who should get treatment wind up in jail, where, famously, they don’t tend to get better. If the coercive power of the state can be deployed to get this particular young dude the help he would not otherwise seek, that would seem an obvious and positive outcome.

The day before sharing a short stretch of silence with the young man’s father, I’d attended a confab of mental-health activists, providers, and government officials. The news was great. The CEOs of all three county hospitals were talking with county administrators about providing more mental-health beds, desperately needed. We heard of new detox programs for people without money; we heard of greatly expanded rehab plans for people of means. We heard about millions of dollars in state grants all but in our pockets for new initiatives to divert the mentally ill from behind bars.

Only after it was over would I hear that the plug had been pulled on the Co-Response Unit, just months after its launch. By all accounts, it had proved valuable. But because of an acute shortage of patrol officers, the department will stop assigning Deputy McKarrell to the Co-Response Unit. Barring divine intervention, the program goes dark March 25.

Let’s hear it for divine intervention. Failing that, prepare to get rocked by more of those solar winds.