Murrieta Police Department’s newest team provides a welcome addition to changing the landscape of mental health calls

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Officer Aaron Creed, left, and Karina Martinez make up the Community Behavioral Health Assessment Team with the Murrieta Police Department. Valley News/Courtesy photo

Murrieta Police Department recently rolled out its new Community Behavioral Health Assessment Team, CBAT, which pairs professional expertise and officers to better handle mental health issues while in the field, while also supplying those in crisis with the resources they need.

Lt. James Gruwell and Sgt. Matthew Embrey supervise the CBAT team, which consists of one licensed clinical therapist provided by Riverside County, and one Murrieta police officer. Both the Murrieta Police Department and the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department Temecula Station have come together and partnered their CBAT programs.

“We both are facing the same issues in terms of an increase in calls,” Embrey said. “Because we work closely with the Temecula Sheriff’s Station and we have a very good working relationship with them, it’s just a pretty natural thing for us to recognize that both of us have a need for this team.”

Officer Aaron Creed has had specialized crisis intervention training and will be taking additional training.

While this team is new to Riverside County, the program has been done elsewhere, featuring different acronyms, but San Diego and Los Angeles County both have similar programs.

“A lot of people are really surprised when I give them the statistics for how many mental health complaints that we respond to every year,” Gruwell said. “In 2019, we responded to 466 mental health complaints, so that’s more than one a day.”

Thirty-one of those complaints were hospital calls, calling the police to come to the emergency rooms, according to Gruwell.

“Mental health complaints could range the spectrum of a person that’s suicidal, making suicidal statements, to someone that’s acting out because of maybe their mental health issue where they’re a danger to others, or to themselves,” Gruwell said.

Gruwell said Murrieta’s number of calls received on these issues are similar to the numbers that Temecula receives.

“These two teams are in place to handle those calls for service, so that the other officers can concentrate more on the crimes and their beats and proactive police work,” Gruwell said.

Murrieta Police Department’s Community Policing Team is under the same umbrella as CBAT. Their officers are also trained in basic level crisis intervention training and can be a substitute if needed.

CBAT was initially staffed in May, but due to COVID-19, it was slightly delayed.

“I think May was when we actually had all that behind us and we started working together,” Creed said. “First week we worked together and then the protests happened, so I was called out for that too. So we didn’t really get our boots on the ground until June.”

Creed, who has been a sworn police officer since January 2015, and has worked with the Murrieta Police Department since April 2019, said he was excited to apply for the team when the memorandum was first released.

“When I first saw it, I thought it was awesome,” Creed said. “I think that this is something that’s necessary. Mental health isn’t going away and it’s always been an issue, and with police work, we haven’t had this kind of setup to handle situations where people are in crisis.”

Creed said he saw from the beginning how valuable it was.

“I thought it could be something where I could expand my knowledge just in being law enforcement, and then I could maybe make an impact that I couldn’t make without a clinical therapist,” Creed said.

When a call comes through, they don’t always know that there’s mental health issues related to the call, according to Creed.

“When a call comes out, it has what it is. Is it a disturbance family; is it a suspicious person? And as more details come out, I try to listen up on the radio for cues to me that it’s mental health related,” Creed said. “Maybe it’s a person who’s talking to themselves; maybe it’s a person who, a lot of people say they’re acting bizarre, and if I hear something like that, if I pick up on it, I’ll start us out that way to see if we can help.”

Some days they’ll have quite a few calls, while other days not as many.

“If it’s a day where we’re not getting that many calls, what we like to do is try to follow up on people that we have talked to in the past, see if they are seeking out those resources and where they’re at,” Creed said. “Some people don’t want to use resources and some people the first time we go visit them, they’re already on a course to get through it.”

A lot of help comes down to family support, he said.

“The hardest type of people to reach on calls are people that may live alone or don’t have any support,” Creed said.

“For a long time, police officers have been dispatched to all sorts of calls that would be much better served by a unit like this,” Embrey said. “We’ve been dispatched by ourselves just because when you dial 911 and the dispatcher has to send someone out, who are they going to send?”

Embrey said that in dangerous situations, the go-to is to send the police.

“If this type of a unit doesn’t exist, the police have been drawn into all types of things that would be much better served by something like this,” Embrey said.

Gruwell said he has received emails from other police departments, showing interest in replicating the program.

“Our plan is to see this team succeed and get people the resources that they need,” Gruwell said. “A lot of the calls that we deal with involve mental health issues… A lot of these mental health issues aren’t something that’s a quick fix; it’s going to involve months or years to try to mitigate it.

“I don’t know if you ever completely solve mental health issues, but you can lessen the negative effects of them by the person getting treatment,” Gruwell said.

The Murrieta Police Department said it is happy with the team and the results so far.

“As far as we’re concerned, this is a permanent program,” Embrey said. “There’s a movement right now to steer certain issues toward social services and away from just a uniform police response, and we agree with that. We would like to facilitate a lot of things that’s traditionally been handled by cops, and we like the fact that social services are getting more involved.

Embrey said that they’ve been working on getting the unit going for quite some time now.

“It is the way of the future, and it should be,” he said.

Lexington Howe can be reached by email at lhowe@reedermedia.com.