Bakersfield’s first-ever 911 dispatcher tasked with providing mental health care | News

Delphina Rojo never imagined going into mental health care recovery.

But after gaining years of experience in Kern Behavioral Health & Recovery Services and a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from CSUB, Rojo now occupies Bakersfield’s inaugural position as a recovery specialist tasked with fielding 911 calls that meet certain criteria. She provides mental health services for the Bakersfield Police Department’s Communications Center.

“A mental health staff would look for different things in law enforcement because of our training,” Rojo said. “It’s more to connect with the individual and guide them towards what’s going to be the most beneficial for their mental health.”

Roughly 76 percent of calls answered by Rojo since she started in August 2021 have been aided with a mental health response rather than a police officer, Rojo’s interim unit supervisor Fernanda Ramirez said.

This success prompted plans for an expansion of the program, said City Councilman Eric Arias.

The City Council seeks to add three other dispatchers tasked with similar responsibilities, according to the city’s proposed budget. The total cost for the program is $400,757, according to a plan that’s expected to be discussed during a June 15 council meeting.

“The hope is that with those additional three individuals in there, we are going to provide 24/7 … opportunities for any individual who’s facing these types of mental health crises,” Arias said.

How it works

“I can’t take this anymore. Nobody cares for me.”

Rojo said she has heard this refrain while answering calls. This statement, coupled with the caller saying they swallowed a whole bottle of pills, prompts her to send the police.

But other less extreme situations allow Rojo the ability to listen. Some calls may last up to 30 minutes and end with referrals to various mental health services or the deployment of a mobile evaluation team, Rojo said.

Ramirez said the mobile teams, which consist of Kern BHRS employees, respond with officers to situations needing services other than police.

Some people simply need to vent, she said. Typically, 911 dispatchers will answer a call and transfer the person to Rojo if the caller is speaking rapidly and not listening to instructions.

Rojo said she’s trying to answering a few questions when first taking a call: What’s the caller’s temperament? How are they listening to questions? What happened before they called 911?

Rojo has a soothing voice, said Ramirez, her interim supervisor.

“It’s a natural gift,” Ramirez said.

The supervisor has observed calls beginning with heightened anxiety and rambling speech. Then Rojo employs grounding techniques and the conversation ends with the caller calmly thanking Rojo, Ramirez said. No need to send a mobile evaluation team, or police who may exacerbate a situation.

Rojo, using her connection at Kern BHRS, can provide teams with knowledge about a repeat caller and send potential help, Ramirez added.

“It’s a privilege to be able to be a part of so many people’s lives,” said Rojo, a Highland High School graduate and lifelong Bakersfield resident.

‘Caregiver’ instead of ‘enforcement’ 

Arias said city officials sought to reimagine their approach to various emergencies in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the resulting protests. They created a mental health dispatcher pilot program in collaboration with BPD and Kern BHRS to gauge its outcomes last year.

Robert Pair, spokesman for the BPD, said he would welcome the addition of individuals tasked with providing mental health help. 

Mental health experts provide a “caregiver” response rather than “enforcement,” Pair said, citing the example of a resident who has contacted 911 dispatchers multiple times per day worried about someone eavesdropping and controlling their brain, Pair said.

Sending out a police officer each time to ensure their safety is a potential solution, but connecting that resident with a mental health service can lead to “alternative strategies,” he added.

Officers repeatedly responding to such situations have decreased, Pair said, which allows police resources to address criminal activity instead.

“Having someone that is connected with the system (like Rojo is) … hugely important, not just to the safety of that individual, but overall the safety of our community,” Pair said.

You can reach Ishani Desai at 661-395-7417. You can also follow her at @_ishanidesai on Twitter. 

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