In Lompoc several obviously mentally impaired people can be seen wandering aimlessly on the main commercial streets daily. They usually don’t bother anyone, but occasionally they find themselves in police custody.

In the 1960s then-Gov. Ronald Reagan and President John Kennedy closed mental health facilities because instead of treating mental illness they were nothing more than poorly run jails. Their idea was that the state legislature and Congress would follow up with a comprehensive mental health care system.

It’s 60 years later, and we are still waiting. The only tangible result of their action was that tens of thousands of mentally ill people were released onto the streets and became homeless.

A few months ago in Lompoc it was announced that a mental health care facility would be moving into the now empty Champion Center, which was originally built to house and treat alcohol- and drug-dependent first responders and military veterans. Nothing else has been reported on the progress of this project since the initial announcement.

There is a great debate going on in many cities across the U.S. and in Santa Barbara County concerning the defunding of police departments and transferring the money to other agencies.

But the need for a fully funded police department needs careful examination. For example, if an officer is called to a “disturbance at a business,” it could be for a variety of situations. Is it someone unhappy with the service, an intoxicated person, or an out-of-control individual with mental health issues?

The 9-1-1 call-taker can’t make this determination over the phone, so an officer is dispatched to check the circumstances.

One defunding idea is to transfer police funds to those agencies responsible for identifying and caring for the mentally ill; the objective here is to have mental health professionals handle these types of cases.

For someone who isn’t familiar with what happens when officers are called to assist citizens in a variety of situations, most of whom are politicians who have no background in emergency response, they may seriously believe that each of these events could be handled by the public health department or social services rather than the police.

So, what happens when an individual is in custody for a crime and has mental health issues? A recent Grand Jury report concerning in-custody fatalities at the county jail points out the problems associated with this approach.

The following paragraphs are from a Noozhawk report on July 5. In each of the two cases of death while in custody, the Grand Jury found that “The sheriff needs to insist on more adequate psychiatric responses from Wellpath (medial provider at the jail).”

The Noozhawk report said the first case involved a person booked into jail awaiting trial for second degree burglary; his case had been continued for 14-months. He had a “decades-long history of prior arrests, detention, and mental-health issues with suicidal ideations. A jail mental health psychiatrist from Wellpath diagnosed him with schizophrenia and prescribed medications in August 2018, and there was no follow-up when (the subject) stopped taking the medications, according to the report.”
“The mental health professional determined that (he) was not a danger to himself, according to the report, about 45 minutes before his suicide.”

The second case involved a person from Lompoc arrested on outstanding warrants and parole violations, who was “suffering from mood disorders, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, and denied any drug or alcohol use,” according to the Grand Jury report. This individual was not referred to a mental health professional and committed suicide.

Neither of these incarcerations began with a situation that the Public Health or Social Services departments could have handled. Both were law enforcement issues that ended up being mental health issues, and the result was that one refused to take medications as the Welfare and Institutions code allows, and the other wasn’t referred for care.

The California Welfare and Institutions Code is the governing document used for in-field encounters with mentally ill individuals. It stipulates that a medical facility “may detain him or her for evaluation and treatment for a period not to exceed 72 hours.”

In other words, it would take some extraordinary circumstances to hold an individual longer than three days; then they are turned loose without supervision.

Obviously, a more reliable means to handle mental health issues needs to be implemented, but simply transferring funds from police agencies which are the first responders to in-progress incidents that turn out to involve mentally ill people isn’t the answer.
Following Reagan’s and Kennedy’s 60-year-old dream to create a comprehensive mental health care system while maintaining police department funding is the answer.

— Ron Fink, a Lompoc resident since 1975, is retired from the aerospace industry and has been active with Lompoc municipal government commissions and committees since 1992, including 12 years on the Lompoc Planning Commission. He is also a voting member of the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association. Contact him at Click here to read his previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.