Deputy Orell Massey is Mendocino County’s first and, so far, only black patrol deputy. He has recently semi-retired, shifting from patrol to prisoner transportation. The tall, fit former Marine sat down with us recently for a wide ranging discussion of his unique career.
Since mental health has been a high-visibility subject in recent months and because Sheriff Allman recently told a joint meeting of the Board of Supervisors and the Behavioral Health Board that he planned to stop having deputies respond to non-criminal mental health calls, we begin with Deputy Massey’s experience with mental health calls.
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Massey: Over the years I've dealt with many mental health cases. My experience with the mental health system is not positive. There are a number of problems. One of them is when you deal with someone on a mental health call you have to contact them and evaluate them and determine if the person needs to be turned over to mental health. Often it takes a long time for the mental health worker to show up. You can be sitting there waiting for a long time. Other deputies have the same problem. There is always a problem with the availability of a mental health response. Sometimes you get a mental health worker who wants to know all about the case before they will send someone out. But all we want is for them to send someone to take a look. Most of these people are their clients who they have dealt with before. But apparently the mental health workers just do not want to come out. So they usually want to know exactly what this person was doing and so forth. Then you have to call someone else and give them details about why you think they need mental health attention. And they drag their feet sometimes before they come out. All of this you’re sitting with the person waiting. And then many times when they do show up they release the person so fast that their client will beat the deputy out the door. [Laughs] You can be walking out the front door and you’ll see the person who needs mental-health attention coming out the side door. And you have been tied up with that individual for who knows how many hours. Sometimes the person may be somewhat violent. There are also times I've been required to wait an hour or two for a mental health person to show up and deal with a person. And then when they arrived the first thing they do is interview you [the deputy] to find out what the problem is, not the person who needs assistance. The single craziest thing that I see with mental health is the way the referral forms are handled. For an official 5150 the deputy has to fill out a mental health form, If a person volunteers to be seen by mental health, no form is required. But if you need to pursue a 5150 under the Welfare and Institutions code, the form is required for involuntary detention where they can keep you for 72 hours or longer for evaluation. Under the mental health form today if you have a word misspelled or an incorrect date or any other minor error or mistake they will not accept the form. You cannot call them on the phone and tell them to correct it, to change a date from 1950 to 1960 say. They simply won't do it. Time and again I've asked them to make a simple correction or change and they won't do it. They have to come back and or have you come back in to change the form and re-sign it. I think they are simply trying to avoid having to evaluate the people. Why can't they fix minor things like that without some giant rigmarole? It's just a correction. Or maybe you don't check a box — if you ask them to check the box they will not do it. And so their client is right out the door again and they don’t have to deal with them because the problem is still there. Nothing has been done.
AVA: Have you seen any difference between the previous contractor and the present contractor?
Massey: It seems like it's been the same no matter who's doing it. There's always a shortage of beds, a shortage of facilities, so they are reluctant to accept people for evaluation or treatment. I understand that. But they should not use the form as a way to avoid dealing with these people. Ordinarily, once they accept the form and the person, the deputy is relieved of the responsibility of staying with them. But a deputy must stay with the person if they are being considered for 5150 until a mental-health worker assesses them and accepts them.
There are also times when mental health workers ask the deputies to do additional things the mental health person should do. I’ve told them my initial evaluation is for the 5150 and that they should be turned over to Mental Health. Typically we will call mental health in these cases and ask them where they want the person taken. If the person is somewhat violent or if they are under the influence of drugs or alcohol, they usually are taken to the emergency room where they are held until the mental health worker shows up. If the person is exhibiting some type of violence and the mental health worker is afraid of them then the deputy is still tied up.
AVA: So you'd support the idea of a crisis van that gets dispatched on mental health calls behind the cops who could take the person from the deputy on the scene?
Massey: Of course! If a crime was committed, that would be different. But that would be a big improvement in many cases.
AVA: They have a version of this in other Northern California counties, but as far as I can tell Mendocino has avoided it for decades. Many times the person just needs to be held for a while to calm down so they can be taken home or some other more stable situation.
Massey: That would be good. But my experience in the Sheriff's office is that the mental health people want the Sheriff to do everything. The first thing anyone does is to call the Sheriff. We need a person to come in for a few minutes -- call the sheriff. The public seems to have this attitude as well. If a person is acting out, people will not want to carry them in their cars so they call the Sheriff for a ride to the hospital or something. So sometimes we are little more than a taxi service. And sometimes those are problems that could be handled with mental health and should be handled by mental health without any law enforcement involvement. But they want a cop present.
AVA: I saw where the sheriff declared that he was going to stop dispatching deputies to minor mental health incidents. He wasn’t specific about when or what kinds of situations, but I think he means it.
Massey: I know that many times when people call on the crisis line, instead of a mental health person responding, the crisis line staffer will call the sheriff's office and tell us that someone is calling the crisis line or someone is threatening to kill himself and the sheriff has to go out and evaluate the person and take the person down to the mental health department for evaluation. No crime is involved. All you do is go out and do a simple evaluation and ask certain questions to the family members and maybe talk to the person. And if the family thinks the person needs mental health service then the deputy will transport the person in. But obviously mental health people are more qualified to do that. And they can do what they need to do and keep the person at home and help them if they need medical help. But if the person needs medical attention, then they often ask the sheriff to transport them to the hospital or to a doctor's office or clinic. Transport, transport, transport. And frequently in this county that can be quite a distance. It can take hours. It can take hours for us to deal with a situation which a mental-health worker could solve in a matter of minutes if they were on the scene. I can't believe it. Can't they simply do their job? Why do they call the Sheriff's office for everything? I understand there are times when there is a real emergency or a physical problem. But most of the time there’s a person on the crisis line or sometimes they are at the mental health office and a client of theirs has called in and says they don't want to do something mental health asked them to do, or they want to hurt themselves. So they will call the Sheriff's office and say the person is threatening to hurt themselves. So there we go again. It happens all the time.
AVA: Are there any statistics on that kind of thing?
Massey: All our calls are recorded and the nature of the call is recorded. You can go through and look at that and see how many are mental health and what the disposition was. The information is available if someone wants to get it. Basically, the Sheriff and the police spend a lot of their time babysitting. Taking care of people, stopping people from fighting, stopping people from stealing other people's stuff, taking care of all these social situations and trying to keep things relatively smooth. Every day the police are tasked with more and more stuff and more rules and… I don't know where it's going. But today's police officers are weighed down with so many things that don't have much to do with crime because we are the ones that people know must respond and will respond. The public is more and more demanding. And they are more and more critical of the police. You know, you can work all your career and have no big problems, and then one incident can take it all from you. Wow! That is not a great feeling!