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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on November 2nd, 2016, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 17, Issue 35 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 17, Issue 35

Force or negotiation? Authorities discuss how they decide when to call mobile crisis units

By DAVID MINSKY

Before police shot and killed 31-year-old Javier Gaona on the morning of July 20, an FBI negotiator was attempting to talk to Gaona, who stood with a knife to his neck and his back against the FoodsCo sign at the corner of Broadway and Enos in Santa Maria. 

Gaona was threatening suicide. The Santa Maria Police Department (SMPD) had him surrounded. More than 30 minutes elapsed. At some point, according to SMPD Chief Ralph Martin, Gaona stopped communicating, and reportedly lunged at police. Suddenly, officers let loose a barrage of bullets at Gaona and he died a short time later.  


CRISIS IN PROGRESS
Javier Gaona was shot and killed by police on July 20. It was the first Santa Maria Police Department-involved shooting since June 2015.
FILE PHOTO BY DAVID MINSKY

In a subsequent interview, Martin said Gaona was most likely mentally ill. Witnesses would later question whether his mental state at the time should have necessitated intervention from a mobile crisis unit.  

Mobile crisis units are emergency mental health services provided by the Santa Barbara County Department of Behavioral Wellness. Specifically these units field response teams that are a part of the Crisis and Recovery Emergency Services (CARES), which is sent out to perform psychiatric assessments and get help for people who experience crises such as Gaona’s, according to CARES spokeswoman Suzanne Grimmesey. 

Originally, the units were known as mental health assessment teams and were provided by AMR ambulance company before the county started using its own dedicated teams in 2008. The teams respond to varying levels of crises, Grimmesey said, but generally their jobs are to go out into the field and evaluate if someone is experiencing a psychiatric emergency that requires hospitalization.  

A situation like Gaona’s was within the scope of what the team is trained to handle, Grimmesey told the Sun

The teams have the authority to make a 5150 determination (involuntary psychiatric hold for up to 72 hours). The teams work on a 24/7 basis and are composed of medical professionals, who are also trained negotiators, Grimmesey said. They provide services to the three biggest population centers in the county (Santa Maria, Santa Barbara, and Lompoc), and often work closely with police. 

Citing privacy laws, Grimmesey wouldn’t say if the crisis unit was called in Gaona’s case. Martin couldn’t talk about details of the case, citing an active investigation. Both Grimmesey and Martin said that in order for the crisis team to intervene, the police would need to secure the scene and ensure safety of everyone nearby. 

When police responded to the incident involving Gaona, they arrived to find him holding a knife and standing at one of the city’s busiest intersections.

Though he can’t comment on specific cases, Martin did say the crisis units are a vital resource and said his department calls them “quite a bit.” He also said he thinks they’re understaffed and that his officers get tied up for hours at a time with the crisis unit and patient at the hospital.

During the Oct. 4 Santa Maria City Council meeting, members of the City Council approved a $114,899 three-year (through fiscal year 2017-18) CARES contract with the Department of Behavioral Wellness that would provide mental health assessments for alcohol, drug, mental health, and transportation services to local facilities. 

“Psychiatric field assessment services to the acutely mentally ill, as well as transporting mentally ill individuals to psychiatric facilities,  are both essential services designed to protect the welfare of individuals in our community,” Martin stated in a signed report contained in the Oct. 4 council agenda. 

However, at the City Council meeting, he said a three-year contract was something his department “didn’t want to get involved in at this time.”

“Many times when we do call them, they are unable to respond or assist us in every case,” Martin explained to the Sun

According to Martin, his department responds to more than 100,000 calls each year. Neither the SMPD nor the Department of Behavioral Wellness keeps track of how many times the crisis unit is called, although Grimmesey told the Sun that her department began tracking this information on Oct. 3. 

The Gaona shooting is being investigated by the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office. Once complete, the investigation will be handed over to the District Attorney’s Office for review. 

Staff Writer David Minsky can be reached at dminsky@santamariasun.com.




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