(Update: Adding video, comments from county crisis program manager, police chief)
BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) -- The Mobile Crisis Assessment Team, or MCAT, has been serving Deschutes County since 2004. It's a team of six mental health professionals who respond when called by law enforcement and community partners to help people who are experiencing a mental health crisis.
Now, with increased focus on mental health issues and new state direction about their operation, the City of Bend and the County are expanding the program.
City councilors on Wednesday evening authorized an intergovernmental agreement with the county that will provide an additional $328,000 to the MCAT and the Crisis Stabilization Center that can play a key role in having a place for those in need to receive help.
The funding will enhance MCAT’s ability to respond to certain calls for those experiencing mental health crises without requiring a law enforcement presence, the city said in Thursday's announcement.
MCAT will respond 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year without law enforcement on calls from both 911 and 988, the new suicide and crisis lifeline.
The team will respond in pairs to calls that meet certain criteria, including people with suicidal ideations who have not committed a crime and aren’t currently attempting to hurt themselves or others, and people who are not armed with any weapons or in need of urgent medical attention.
Added funding for the Crisis Stabilization Center will ensure Bend Police and MCAT have a safe and professional place to take people experiencing mental health crises, to ensure their needs are assessed and met as best as possible.
Since January 2020, Bend Police have responded to more than 5,100 calls for service for people experiencing mental health crises. Nearly all Bend Police officers are trained and experienced in crisis intervention and response, but a highly trained mental health professional is often a better option than law enforcement to respond to these types of incidents.
The city said the expanded MCAT provides the Bend community with the right resources to help those in need, and ensures that the unnecessary presence of police officers does not escalate someone already in crisis.
Holly Harris, crisis program manager for Deschutes County, told NewsChannel 21 on Thursday that the goal is for the county to respond to mental health crises without needing law enforcement there, if circumstances permit.
"I think most people would tell you that if they were in a crisis, they wouldn't want law enforcement showing up at their door or at their house," Harris said. "I think anyone can understand that, and so this is going to allow us to be able to do that -- to be able to show up to people's homes in the community without law enforcement."
"And it's also going to support our law enforcement partners, who didn't go into this work to necessarily be social workers," Harris added. "So it's really going to be a great benefit to the entire community."
Police Chief Mike Krantz said the city announcement, “I am thankful for our strong partnership with Deschutes County. “This helps the city and Bend Police help our community by connecting people experiencing a mental health crisis with behavioral and mental health professionals. It also allows law enforcement professionals to focus on the work they’re trained to do.”
Krantz told councilors, "Our police staffing is, as you know, strained. Our service demand is well above our service capacity of what we currently have."
"So we are always striving to find new and creative ways to offer alternative resources, responses that are not in law enforcement -- particularly in (situations) when a police officer isn't needed and necessary."
The $328,000 comes from the city’s American Rescue Plan Act funds and will be used to hire additional mental health professionals and help fund the Crisis Stabilization Center.
The city said it could be considered “seed funding” that could potentially expand, if a future assessment indicates the program was successful and additional funding would be beneficial for the community. Success will be measured by a reduction in the number of calls Bend Police officers respond to that include mental health crises.
Harris says the official rollout of the expanded MCAT could begin next year.
"It's all part of the continuum of crisis services," she said. "So we can't do one piece of it alone. It's all so interconnected, and everybody's crisis is unique and requires a unique response. So this is one additional piece to the entire continuum."