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Alternatives to calling the police for behavioral health or substance abuse

If you witness or find yourself in a behavioral or substance abuse crisis, which is the right number to call?

A man sat unresponsive with his face down at a table at Casa Que Pasa — he'd been there for over five hours, and Tina Prekaski, an employee, said staff's attempts to rouse him came up short.

Prekaski was at a loss, "What do we do? Do we call the cops? Is he breathing," she recalled asking.

Prekaski’s coworker tried calling the Bellingham Police non-emergency line, but found out that the line is only operational on weekdays. After that didn’t work, Prekaski made the decision to call 911.

Police and paramedics arrived at the scene, woke the man up and took his vitals. He was simply sleeping, nothing was wrong. When the man raised his head, Prekaski recognized his face.

The man had frequented Casa Que Pasa several times before, for free food. Prekaski had given him meals on several occasions. They felt guilty for calling the police.

“Maybe if I would have tried harder, he would have woken up, and he would have recognized me,” Prekaski said. They regretted calling 911 because the paramedics and police officers scared the man.

The incident happened this March, but Prekaski recalled a similar situation in November 2020, when a man locked himself in the restaurant bathroom for hours, using substances. Prekaski called the non-emergency line for help, and the police and paramedics broke the bathroom door down after arriving.

Claudia Murphy, public information officer and lieutenant for Bellingham Police Department, said in an email that responding to substance abuse calls involves establishing contact with the user and assessing the situation from there.

“We may contact them just to be sure all is well,” Murphy said. “Being high on drugs is not illegal, so there is no criminality there. We will likely leave shortly after assuring ourselves no one is in a medical crisis.”

If police arrive on scene and someone is actively using drugs, Murphy said police will likely impound drugs if they are in plain sight, but would not seize a vehicle or backpack in order to obtain a search warrant.

“The [Washington] Supreme court just ruled RCW 69.50.4013 unconstitutional, meaning possession of a controlled substance is no longer enforceable at this time,” Murphy said.

As for behavioral health episodes, Murphy said that the answer is far more complicated. Responses by the department may include speaking to the person and their family, reaching out to the department’s crisis negotiators or Behavioral Health Officer, speaking to family, or calling the Mobile Crisis Outreach Team, Compass Health.

“The biggest thing is to respond and to make sure we provide the best possible care to the person in crisis, as we are, at this point the only entity who can respond and has to respond to crisis[es] like this,” Murphy said.

Though the outreach team works with the Bellingham Police Department, they are a separate entity and can be called for mental health emergencies.

“Recognizing the anticipated growing number of individuals with behavioral health needs, we know that there needs to be a community-driven response that is designed to reach people in need,” said Amy Pereira-Clevenger, director of crisis response & stabilization.

The outreach team at Compass Health is available 24/7 to answer questions and respond to those in behavioral health crises or those who are in a pre-crisis situation that seems to be deteriorating, Pereira-Clevenger said. The team has around 20 master’s level clinicians and substance abuse counselors who can meet Bellingham callers in homes, schools or other communities as appropriate.

While the Mobile Crisis Outreach Team responds to callers in crisis, the Homeless Outreach Team through the Opportunity Council is also available in Bellingham to respond to unhoused persons in crisis.

Similar to the mobile team, the Homeless Outreach Team has highly trained staff members that are equipped to deal with mental health or substance abuse crises, said Marisa Schoeppach, the Homeless Outreach Team coordinator. 

Schoeppach said that 90% of the 150 to 200 calls they receive a week require someone to be dispatched to the scene.

Schoeppach said that the team may work with the police department, but they are not an extension of the law. A release of information, like a consent for help is required before they are able to go to the scene or advise anyone.

As for using the number as an alternative to calling the police, Schoeppach said different situations call for different responses.

“If someone is locking themselves in a bathroom … I would much rather have anyone call us [before the police] to see if we can field that call,” Schoeppach said. For situations that seem medically dire, Schoeppach said that calling 911 first is a better idea.

During the George Floyd protests in July 2020, a flyer listing alternatives to calling the police circled Bellingham. That flyer is still active but doesn’t explain some information, according to Murphy.

Gayle Lacroix is the mediation program manager for Whatcom Dispute Resolution Center, a non-profit organization that assists conflicts with third party mediators.

The center is not available on-call for dispute resolution, and needs a 24 to 48 hours notice to set up an assisted discussion, which often can take two to three hours.

“It is important that the community sees the [resolution center] as a resource when they are experiencing conflict in non-emergency situations,” Lacroix said. “Since we don't operate a crisis line, it is important to differentiate our services from emergency services so that people aren't waiting for a response if there is something that is at an emergency level.”

The phone number for Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services in also listed on the flyer, but Murphy said that while she is a huge advocate for these services, the group does not act as a first responder and will not come to the scene unless safety has been established.

Regarding alternatives to calling the police, Murphy said that the department has a vested interest in alternatives for certain calls, but there needs to be a well-considered, tested and working alternative in place before law enforcement’s role can be reduced, and it cannot happen overnight.

“It must be done right, as we do not want people in crisis to suffer,” Murphy said.

Homeless Outreach Team: Weekdays 7 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. - 360-312-3717

Mobile Crisis Outreach Team: 24/7 - 1-800-584-3578

Report a crime not in progress without a suspect - Bellingham Police - Weekdays: 360-778-8804

Report a crime not in progress with a suspect - Bellingham Police - Weekdays: 360-676-6911

Dispute Resolution Center - Not a crisis line: Tuesday to Friday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. - 360-676-0122


Clay Wren

Clay Wren is a third-year finance major and journalism minor who uncovers the hidden stories of Bellingham. He can be reached any time at claywren.thefront@gmail.com, Instagram: @wrenthejewels


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