Police: Mental Health Holds Down, Contacts Up

Involuntary hospitalizations of people experiencing a mental health crisis have been falling steadily over the past several years, according to the Burbank Police Department. But its mental health team responded to significantly more calls last year than in 2019.
California law allows law enforcement officers to detain individuals for a 72-hour psychiatric hospitalization if they pose danger to themselves or others, or have been “gravely disabled” as a result of a mental disorder. Burbank police made 439 of these detentions, often called “5150 holds” after the section of state law that authorizes them, in 2020 — down from 516 in 2019 and 692 in 2016.

It is difficult to pinpoint why the department has seen a 36.5% decrease in mental health holds over the past five years, said police spokesman Sgt. Emil Brimway. He explained potential factors include detainees remaining in treatment, the department’s case management efforts and increased training for officers regarding who qualifies for hospitalization.
The pandemic appears to also have had an impact on the figure, Brimway added, though the extent of its effect is unknown.
“What we do know is that inpatient bed availability has been severely limited across the country, in order for hospitals to meet the social distancing requirement, lower the spread of the virus or utilizing available beds to care for COVID-19 patients,” he said in an email.
If placement at a private hospital is impossible, Brimway added, the BPD tries to admit patients to a mental health urgent care facility or a Los Angeles County psychiatric emergency room.
But while 5150 holds are decreasing, the department’s Mental Health Evaluation Team — which consists of a specially trained officer and an L.A. County mental health department clinician — has found itself increasingly busy. Brimway said the MHET’s contacts increased from 538 to 777, or by 44%, between 2019 and 2020. Those figures include both initial contacts and follow-ups.
The team, which has been praised by city officials and county groups, responds to many reports made to the BPD that may involve someone with a mental health issue. The MHET also refers some individuals to mental health services, Brimway said, acting as a go-between for the person and the service provider.
The police department has only one two-person MHET, and is only available 40 hours a week. In February, members of the City Council said they would like to see the program expanded.