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Be Well Huntington Beach set to launch next month

Jerry Thomas, left, runs through a role-playing exercise with Jimmy Mun during a training session.
Jerry Thomas, a training officer with the Huntington Beach Police Department, left, runs through a role-playing exercise with Jimmy Mun during a training session for the Be Well Huntington Beach program on Wednesday. The program is a mobile crisis response team that will be responding to mental health and personal assistance calls, instead of police officers.
(Scott Smelter / Staff Photographer)

A 12-year-old boy is acting unruly, and his agitated mother is trying to get him under control.

Traditionally the Huntington Beach Police Department has responded to calls like these, even though the situation does not present an immediate threat of danger. But a new option is coming to Surf City starting Aug. 2.

Huntington Beach is partnering with Be Well Orange County to launch a new mobile crisis response team, Be Well Huntington Beach, to manage such situations.

A big blue Be Well van will be driving around the city, carrying an emergency medical technician and a clinically trained counselor to respond to calls that are mental health- or behavior-related.

Police have been training the Be Well OC civilians this week, prior to the launch of the program.

On Wednesday at the Gothard Fire Training Center, HBPD officers Jerry Thomas and Frank Gallant walked four Be Well team members through various situations, including arriving at the home of an agitated person. They also talked about how to handle and respond to 911 dispatchers.

Be Well Huntington Beach will have radios out in the field, HBPD spokeswoman Jennifer Carey said, and the team can request police or fire assistance, depending on the nature of the situation.

“The introduction of Be Well into Huntington Beach really supports us in two different ways,” Carey said. “One, it allows us to send crisis counselors who are better equipped to handle mental health issues than a police officer to incidents of mental health crisis, in order to support our residents. A lot of times, when a police officer responds, it has the potential of escalating a situation even more.

“Not only does it serve our residents better, it also assists the police department in allowing our officers to respond to actual police incidents, incidents of crime throughout the city, in a more effective manner. By introducing this program, we’re allowing our cops to do cop work.”

Jerry Thomas, center, guides Michael Romero, left, Kaetlyn Kim, Alyssa Guerrero and Jimmy Mun during a training session.
Training officer Jerry Thomas, center, guides Michael Romero, left, Kaetlyn Kim, Alyssa Guerrero and Jimmy Mun during a training session for the Be Well Huntington Beach program on Wednesday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Be Well OC has been gaining momentum, as it opened a mental health and wellness campus in Orange in January. The first year of the pilot program in Huntington Beach is funded by a $1.5-million contract.

Tony Delgado, director of the Be Well OC mobile crisis response team, said the group plans to begin its work in Garden Grove soon, but Huntington Beach is the first Orange County city to adopt such a program.

It is based on the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) program that has been successful in Eugene, Ore., Delgado said.

The Huntington Beach City Council unanimously approved the program in April.

According to a staff report prepared by interim Police Chief Julian Harvey, HBPD responds to more than 2,500 calls annually on mental health-related needs, and another 12,000 relating to homelessness. Combined, they represent about 10% of all calls for service.

The Be Well Orange County van will be used to respond to mental health and personal assistance calls when the program debuts.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer )

“Officers are expected to respond to so many calls that are really not policing calls,” Delgado said.

“They’re human service calls … and we work as a team. You know, when somebody calls dispatch, dispatch assesses the call and employs the appropriate agency, whether it’s police, fire or ambulance. For many calls, police is the only response they have. Now, they’re going to have another button that they can push, which is our team.”

Carey said police officers are expected to ride around with the Be Well Huntington Beach team until mid-August, until they can get fully up to speed.

The team can also take homeless people to receive services at the Huntington Beach Navigation Center, which opened last fall.

“It’s not necessarily a homeless program, but it’s going to be of assistance for homeless [people],” Carey said.

“I started thinking, ‘This is a good idea,’ [because] you start humanizing the situations in which they’re actually going to respond to … Be Well will not only assess the situation, but they actually do follow-ups as well.”

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