What is it like to be A Mental Health Police Officer?

An interview with the Culver City Police Department's mental health intervention specialist

By Sarah Haufrect

On most Tuesday mornings, you can find Officer James Thomas of the Culver City Police Department at the intersection of Venice and Sepulveda Boulevards. For the past year, along with a group of fellow officers and volunteers, he is part of a cleanup team in charge of removing trash and handing out items to the unhoused residents, like bottled water, personal hygiene products and clean socks. He said that in 2020 the department assisted in the clearance of around forty tons of garbage.

"There are people who drive passed and they assume a police officer is doing something nefarious and heckle us from their cars, roll down their windows and yell, 'This looks like crap.'"

This doesn't fluster him, and if it ever did, he doesn't let on. Instead, he cites case law. "The People vs. Boise established that sleeping is legal outside as long as the person doesn't impede walkways, but many folks aren't aware of this."

Officer Thomas, on the other hand, thinks about this all the time. He has spent the past year and a half serving as the mental health crisis intervention officer at his station. This means a substantial part of his job addresses the concurrent mental health and homelessness crises. The pandemic has exacerbated both of these societal issues, which is why I was eager to speak to him about both.

Officer Thomas has a calm and commanding presence and speaks with a quiet assuredness. His voice gives me the immediate impression that leadership comes naturally. In an interview that took place earlier this year, officer Thomas shared his time and thoughts about his role as part of the two-person Culver City Mental Health Evaluation Team (MET) on which he serves and on the role of mental health work in law enforcement.

What is a typical day like for your job?

In short: Every day is atypical. I still do my policing job, but I am the only mental health officer based at my station.

Some days, I spend a lot of time responding to calls from the station, on the phone with someone dealing with a serious mental health situation, which can take a few minutes or several hours. For example, this week a gentleman from Texas called me because his daughter was hospitalized locally for a mental health issue and he didn't know what direction to go. We talked for a while and chased down the information he needed to look into care for his daughter.

Another day recently, there was a gentleman that came to the station who appeared to be non-verbal. I noticed his shoes were worn and he looked to have the same shoe size that I had. I said I would be right back, and I got some boots I had stored in my locker and asked if he wanted them. At that point he opened up and actually started talking. I was able to get his name, and discovered he was a missing person from a mental health facility in Long Beach. He was willing to return to the facility. Those kinds of experiences are really meaningful to me.

Another large part of my day is spent in the field responding to calls. My partner is a clinician from the department of mental health and rides with me Monday through Thursday. Together we form the mental health evaluation team. I'm also part of the homeless outreach team. In my patrol car, I carry a hockey bag in the back with nonperishable foods blankets, socks, basic necessities that I can hand out to the homeless that are experiencing a mental health crisis but don't meet the criteria to be hospitalized.

What are those criteria?

Not everyone is willing to voluntarily enter a treatment program, and that's a critical element of my work. I cannot admit a person to a treatment facility if they are not voluntarily choosing to do so, unless their lives are in immediate danger or they are putting someone else's life in danger.

The questions I have to ask would be: Are you a danger to yourself? Are you a danger to others? Do you hear voices, see things that aren't there? Are you greatly disabled? This last question can have different criteria based on where someone lives. For example, in Minnesota living outdoors in the winter without adequate clothes or shelter qualifies as greatly disabled, but not here.

What changes have you seen in your work over the past year due to the pandemic?

A lot more people are in need, a lot more. We also respond more to calls from and about juveniles. Young people have worlds built around their schools and friends and they didn't have that [during the pandemic] in a way. We try to give their parents resources too. It helps us if the parents are supportive, but at times, the parents are experiencing their own issues. In general, we try to convey to adults that their kids are not abnormal or weird; they are going through their own struggles.

The other thing that's changed is that people are home now, sometimes bored, and stressed out. There definitely seems to be heightened anxiety everywhere. A high volume of the calls to the station now are reporting about the homeless. I have to gently remind people that it's not a crime to be homeless. I see high numbers of people who criminalize them by default.

I think about both these issues as an officer and also as a parent myself. I like my kids to see me making eye contact and greeting someone they meet who might appear homeless, just as I would any person I'd interact with in public. I've made sure my kids treat everyone with respect and politeness.

When would you say it's appropriate to make a call to the police about behavior in public?

If you see a person physically harming themselves or causing serious public disturbance. For example, I was called about a woman who was experiencing a mental health crisis; she was nude and throwing food at passing cars. That was a time when we were called to intervene and help her. I created a worksheet at my station about these protocols so that any officer can discuss this on the phone when they are answering calls from the public. I have also tried to set an example with my about mental health evaluation reports. I didn't like how I'd seen reports written in the past using "suspect" so in my reports I use the word "patient."

What was the process like to become a mental health officer?

Once an officer graduates from the academy and does six months of field training, there's a training program with me. Right now, it's only three days. I've created more documentation as part of the program, showing how to fill out the required paperwork that's different than how an officer would fill out a crime report, and I have body camera footage from my field calls for training purposes so trainees can see what bipolar is, what schizophrenia, what meth-induced psychosis is because these can look so similar. What I'd like would be at least another four days of training. I also wish every officer could take the class I took from the National Alliance on Mental Illness for mental health evaluation units through the Los Angeles Police Department where we did role playing for talking someone off a ledge and crisis negotiation.

When do you most feel the impact of your work in the community?

With calls about suicidal thoughts and ideation from juveniles. When young people say they don't want to be here anymore, being able to reach out and say, hey, you have a long life ahead of you, and this is one moment that isn't going to last forever. Being able to get them support and help, as well as their parents (who may or may not be dealing with their own challenges too). Kids often don't realize how many people are affected if they end their life, their siblings, family, people who love them will be affected as long as they live.

What can the community do more to support a stronger city or to become more involved?

1 - Go to city council meetings to support housing and mental health programs.

2 - Don't criminalize homeless and mental health issues.

3 - Be safe and be smart. Sometimes petty theft has occurred, and the victim of the theft goes to a homeless encampment looking for their stolen stuff. Don't do that.

What do you think makes you suited for this kind of work?

I've always been a patient person. I've been to war twice. You have to figure out where the calm is. It's funny, I never thought I'd be a cop. Didn't grow up playing cops and robbers or anything. I was in the military and I'm in the reserves now. The military was my thing and when I became a police officer, the mental health aspect was just a blip I didn't even notice in the academy training, but years later one of my supervisors came up to me and said that a mental health intervention position was opening and that I should apply for it. Now, here I am, and I can't imagine doing anything else. When I retire, I'd like to get my doctorate in psychology and do what my partner does as a clinical psychologist.

What's one of the big things you've learned from doing this job?

I've noticed that people are hesitant to admit they are suffering from a mental health crisis, especially people who feel like it could never happen to them, that because they are, say, well-educated, or highly skilled, that mental illness couldn't "happen" to them. That's simply not the case. We are all this shy of being committed . Covid has allowed people to see that often we are just one paycheck away from being homeless. We are all humans.

A Culver City resident since 2015, Sarah Haufrect is a professional writer and communications director, and serves on the Board of Directors for the Westside Los Angeles Affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness http://www.namila.org


Reader Comments(2)

BossMama writes:

Very insightful article. Kudos to Officer Thomas.

Danish writes:

It’s “past” not “passed”