[Editor’s Note: Pasadena Now has received an email from Santa Barbara County Undersheriff Bernard Melekian containing a clarification in connection with this article. “My remarks were in no way ‘colored’ by the homelessness issue in Pasadena. In fact, I have been involved with the issues of mental health and homelessness since 1988 when I was assigned to Santa Monica’s task force on homeless issues,” Melekian wrote. Additional comments are at the bottom of this article.]
While addressing the National Alliance on Mental Illness last week, former Pasadena Chief of Police and current Santa Barbara County Undersheriff Bernard Melekian said “the collapse of the mental-health treatment system may be one of the greatest social failures in the United States in the 20th century,” according to a report from the Santa Barbara Independent.
The former chief’s remarks may have been colored in part by the rising tide of homelessness that swept through Pasadena during his tenure and the accompanying increase in interaction between his officers and the homeless during that time.
Homelessness rose when Melekian was Police Chief in Pasadena from 1996 to 2009, but has dropped by more than 50 percent since 2011, due in no small part to the Pasadena Partnership to End Homelessness and their “Housing First” policy, which started in 2011.
Nearly half of the homeless in Pasadena are “chronically homeless,” according to a report made earlier this year by Urban Initiatives in partnership with the City of Pasadena, the City of Pasadena Housing Department and the Pasadena Partnership. Chronically homeless individuals may have chronic health conditions, mental illness, a history of domestic violence and physical disabilities.
Melekian told the Independenr that he observed the consequences of poor mental health policy very early in his career, as a young police officer in Santa Monica in the 1970s, when the Euclid Mental Health Center opened and then abruptly closed. This forced police who came across people afflicted with a mental health crisis to have to transport them to jail instead of the facility.
“That shut down within two to three years,” Melekian told the Independent. “I assume it was defunded. I was a young police officer, and all I knew was that an incredibly important resource was suddenly gone.”
The former chief went on to say that he is committed to finding better ways to deal with mental-health issues, but that the solution to the nation’s mental health issues cannot be found within law enforcement.
“Law enforcement [officers] have become the de facto social workers for dealing with people in mental-health crisis, and the tools that we have all too often are a loud voice and a firearm,” Melekian told the Independent. “You heard the president say it the other night in Dallas: We as a society continue to challenge the police to solve these social problems that should be solved elsewhere.”
In 2002, Melekian adopted the “Memphis Model” in Pasadena, pairing patrol officers with mental-health clinicians. The model was developed by the Memphis Police Department in 1988 with the purpose of de-escalating emergency interactions with mental patients and diverting them from jail, according to the report.
[Editor’s note: Here are portions of the email we received from Santa Barbara County Undersheriff Bernard Melekian in connection with the above article:
“I would offer one clarification which I don’t think is insignificant. My remarks were in no way ‘colored’ by the homelessness issue in Pasadena. In fact, I have been involved with the issues of mental health and homelessness since 1988 when I was assigned to Santa Monica’s task force on homeless issues. My Command College paper in 1995 was on the issue of dealing with the homeless mentally ill. In 2000 I was selected to a national task force entitled the Criminal Justice/Mental Health Consensus project (www.consensusproject.org), etc.
I bring this up because I have felt very strongly about this issue, and worked on it, for nearly 30 years. The HOPE team in Pasadena as considered a national model for mid-size agencies. When I really appreciated it was when I went to Washington DC and saw people sleeping outside in near zero temperatures with 10 blankets underneath them and 5 on top. This really is a national disgrace.” ]