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Local law enforcement works hand in hand with mental health service providers, but funding for the program is complicated 

During public comment at the Paso Robles City Council meeting on June 16, Alexis Nocerino questioned the council's funding decisions for the Paso Robles Police Department.

"Why are so many taxpayer dollars pointing toward law enforcement agencies? ... As an institution they clearly lack the proper training and knowledge of how to protect and serve, especially considering most recent events," Nocerino said. "All of you need to check your privilege and your priorities because they do not align with those of the people."

She urged the council to divest from law enforcement agencies and reinvest in the Paso Robles community, stating, "There is clearly a disparity of trust between community members and law enforcement."

Nocerino isn't alone in the call to "defund the police," a sentiment that's swept across the country in the wake of recent protests against police brutality.

Local scrutiny of police funding also came up at the Paso council meeting in light of to the two-day search for Mason James Lira, 26, who police say shot and killed a community member. Several law enforcement officers were injured before the search ended June 11 with Lira's death.

The phrase "defund" has different meanings for different people, according to Paso Robles Police Chief Ty Lewis. It can mean reallocating funds from law enforcement agencies to other community services, police reform, or disbanding law enforcement altogether. Lewis said he understands it as injecting more money into social programs designed to lift people out of their challenges—to improve their quality of life.

"I'm totally for directing city resources to examine, do we need new social programs that would improve things or how do we deal with our at-risk youth within the community," Lewis said. "It's tough because a lot of police departments make up the majority or at least a significant portion of a city budget."

Currently, about 23 percent of Paso Robles' budget is allocated to the police department. Lewis said his department is full-service, meaning his officers respond to a number of calls, including partnering with the SLO County Behavioral Health Department to assist community members who suffer from mental health issues.

"I think the frustration that I have as a police chief is so many of these conversations are 'A or B,' and you only have one choice. I think that there's room for coming up with a discussion surrounding a blending of the two. I don't know that it has to be so binary," he said.

The current rallies and protests, he said, underscore the work that still needs to be done.

Lewis handles his department with a proactive policing approach—looking internally to find ways to improve. About two years ago, the Paso Robles Police Department reached out to various law enforcement agencies and residents to analyze its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, trends, and threats. Through that assessment, the department created a strategic plan to provide services that align with the needs of the community.

"It's getting close to the time for us to re-evaluate that, pull it off the shelf, and ask, 'Were these the right goals, were these the right strategies, were these the right initiatives, and how much did we accomplish or miss?'" he said.

Reallocating funds isn't simple, SLO County Behavioral Health Director Anne Robin said. For instance, some funding for SLO County's Department of Mental Health comes from Medi-Cal. The federal Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services contracts with the state of California. The state then contracts with its counties, which run mental health services as well as drug and alcohol services for people who are beneficiaries of Medi-Cal. Those funds, Robin said, are matched by state and local dollars.

Another chunk of funding comes from the state's Mental Health Services Act, a 1 percent tax on millionaires that's primarily directed toward mental health services. Locally, some Mental Health Services Act funding goes to the Transitions-Mental Health Association (TMHA), which provides adult services and a homeless outreach program. Wilshire Health and Community Services and the Family Care Network also receive funding through the act.

The Behavioral Health Department partners with local mental health organizations such as TMHA and law enforcement agencies to provide wrap-around services in the community.

"As a Behavioral Health staff, we partner closely with the [SLO County Sheriff's Office], with [the SLO Police Department], probation, and with the [SLO County District Attorney's Office]. We partner with them on behalf of our clients to ensure that our clients are served well, and we partner for public safety so that we can ensure more of our clients get treatment," Robin said.

The department also conducts 40-hour crisis intervention team training with all of the law enforcement agencies in the county.

"So I think having that value from our partners in law enforcement throughout the county has made somewhat of a difference in the understanding of law enforcement around people with mental health needs," she said.

On June 12, a day after the search for Lira ended, TMHA posted on its Facebook page about Lira's mental health issues. TMHA Community Engagement Director Michael Kaplan told New Times that a number of people had reached out to the organization because they were disturbed by the way the media and some people in law enforcement weren't addressing Lira's mental health.

Lira's father, Jose Lira, told the Associated Press that his son was diagnosed with schizophrenia, Asperger's syndrome, and attention deficit disorder.

During a press briefing on June 10, Sheriff Ian Parkinson called Lira a "coward" for firing at his officers. Kaplan said that was one of the concerns that people brought up.

"My understanding is that Sheriff Parkinson said those things without yet knowing the man's background. We have an excellent relationship with the sheriff's department and the police department. We have worked really hard in the last year on different programs and trainings," he said.

He said through the Facebook post, TMHA was interested in providing a "counterbalance" to the narratives surrounding the shooting incidents—not calling anyone out.

TMHA assisted in creating and continues to participate in the SLO Police Department's Community Action Team. The program pairs a uniformed police officer with a non-uniformed social worker, and the duo responds to calls about homeless individuals. The Sheriff's Office, Kaplan said, replicated the model in North County and is working directly with the county's Behavioral Health Department.

Pam Zweifel, president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) San Luis Obispo County, said that while the "defund" movement is well-meaning, she doesn't believe anyone should rush into any type of defunding until they have a chance to see how the community has come together to provide mental health services. NAMI SLO County also works with Behavioral Health and law enforcement.

"I do not think cutting the sheriff's budget is the way to go about it. There just isn't that much in his budget that allows for funds to be diverted, and if they are, it'll be [from] my program," Zweifel said. "It'll be the crisis intervention training, sheriff's officers on school campuses, and community action teams that respond to mental health crises in communities." Δ

Staff Writer Karen Garcia can be reached at kgarcia@newtimesslo.com.

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