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Police: Mental health incidents rising in Petaluma

Just after midnight on July 15, 2016, a man arrived at the Petaluma Police Department armed with a fake firearm and plans to end his life with a bullet from an officer’s gun, police chief Ken Savano said.

The man pressed the intercom to ask the department’s dispatchers to open the doors to the locked police station. After noticing the man was in distress, a dispatcher spoke to him until he broke into tears and admitted he was carrying a toy gun in his waistband, Savano said. The dispatcher continued to build a rapport with the man, whose identity was not released, as a second dispatcher called in officers who detained him without incident, Savano said

“If not for both dispatchers remaining calm, there could have potentially been a much different outcome,” he said.

Savano pointed to the incident as one of many where his department has tapped the rigorous crisis negotiation training to successfully diffuse a mental health-related incident at a time when such occurrences are on a multi-year uptick in the city.

Reports of mental health incidents have increased from 196 in 2014 to 223 in 2016 in adults, and from 59 in 2014 to 65 in 2016 in juveniles, according to data from the department. In 2016, police reports were most frequently recorded for traffic collisions, followed by mental health detentions.

Based on the number of calls so far this year, juvenile mental health incidents are expected to jump to 126 — a 93 percent increase from numbers in 2016. Adult mental health related incidents are expected to slightly decrease to 216 this year.

To address those trends, police convened a panel of mental health service providers, including Sonoma County Department of Health Services Behavioral Health Division, Petaluma Health Center and Petaluma Peoples Services Center, to outline a network of intervention and prevention services at a March 1 town hall meeting. The police department has for eight years collaborated with a handful of those local organizations to provide a link to the public health system while also meeting monthly to tackle issues in the community, Officer Bill Baseman said.

“These partnerships and these relationships help with early intervention whenever possible and increase chances for everyone to get home safely,” he said.

Experts at the panel attributed the increase in mental health related incidents to a variety of factors, including anxiety among some populations after the November election, increasing economic strain, stress from social media, and an overall increase in awareness and conversations surrounding mental health.

As youth mental health incidents are expected to increase and police continue to train new employees while working with local organizations, intervention efforts are also underway in the Petaluma City Schools district, according to Assistant Superintendent of Student Services Dave Rose.

Counseling staff has facilitated trauma-informed training at five schools sites outlining ways to work with youth and recognize warning signs, like decreased attendance, low grades or tone in creative writing assignments. Plans are in place to bring the training to more campuses across the district.

The district also employs mental health counselors who work with 400 students, with more than 100 youth on the waiting list, he said.

“We’d like to focus more on mental health support in terms of prevention and how do we stop the build up from happening,” Nikki Jackson, lead guidance specialist said. “That happens by us having relationships with our students that are individualized and one-on-one. We also work closely with staff and teach them what to look for.”

For Social Advocates for Youth Board of Directors President-Elect Scott Pritchard, whose agency provides housing and mental health services for youth in Sonoma County, said the increase is a signal that a larger number of people are seeking help.

“It sounds counter intuitive, but it’s somewhat encouraging that there are more people reaching out,” he said. “I’d be alarmed if in two or three years it’s still trending that direction. As we have these conversations, we’ll hopefully see that trend start to plateau and we’ll know if our efforts are working.”

For more information about local mental health resources, visit cityofpetaluma.net/police/mentalillness.html.