San Diego County Administration Building
The San Diego County Administration Building is shown on Jan. 12, 2021. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

San Diego County supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to expand the countywide Mobile Crisis Response Team initiative as an alternative to treat people with mental health or substance abuse issues.

Rather than relying on traditional law enforcement, the MCRT concept dispatches behavioral health experts to emergency calls when it is appropriate. Sixteen mobile crisis teams will be available across the county beginning Wednesday.

Supervisor Nathan Fletcher told the board that having sheriff’s deputies respond to behavioral health situations isn’t always in the county’s or the victim’s best interest.

“Instead of sending law enforcement to assist someone having a mental health episode, we now have teams of mental health clinicians, case managers, and peer support advocates,” he said. “In a short period of time, MCRTs are proving to be a success, but as the program continues to roll out we will make adjustments and efficiencies to ensure we’re continuously making progress with helping our residents.”  

Since being launched several months ago, the MCRT has responded to 268 calls, with 30% of those being taken to a crisis stabilization unit, and 45% being connected to community services, according to Fletcher’s office.

Fletcher said the county is working with law-enforcement agencies and hoping to expand the MCRT’s operating hours, which are now 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Fletcher said the MCRT will eventually have its own emergency number, 988.

Because the public used to calling 911 for emergencies, it will take time for people to remember the new number, Fletcher said.

Nick Macchione, county Health and Human Services Agency director, said that with the MCRT, “our focus will be a service option that’s clinician- and client-centered.”

The board approved a proposal by Fletcher last year to make MCRTs available in the county.

Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer said a well-intended law enforcement officer may not see a person in a mental health crisis, but instead as a public safety threat. The MCRT could avoid such tragedies, Lawson-Remer said, adding, “This is quite literally an issue of life and death.”

During a public hearing, callers praised the MCRTs. Darwin Fishman, a member of Racial Justice Coalition of San Diego said that “people like Alfred Olango would be alive today if we’d had an MCRT up and running well” several years ago.

On Sept. 27, 2016, in response to a 911 call, El Cajon police shot and killed Olongo, who they believed was holding a firearm. On that same day, Olango’s sister said her brother was acting in a strange manner, and called authorities three times asking for immediate help.

An emergency response team was requested, but apparently didn’t arrive.

Fishman added that his coalition expect a lot more from the MCRT, and hopes the crisis units “don’t end up like just another prison” without proper treatment for those with mental health problems.

Josh Coyne, of the Downtown San Diego Partnership, said his group is looking “to this program (having) long-lasting impacts,” especially when it comes to the ongoing homeless crisis.

“Business owners are frustrated and are looking for results,” Coyne said. “Time is of the essence.”

Those needing a MCRT may call 1-888-724-7240. County officials are working to create access through 911 in all communities, according to Fletcher’s office.

City News Service contributed to this article.

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.