For Police Chief, Mental Health Training Is Key

Michael Albanese

First published in the Jan. 22 print issue of the Burbank Leader.

The Burbank Police Department’s Mental Health Evaluation Team, which consists of a police officer and a Los Angeles County clinician, responds to hundreds of calls a year. It received an award from then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris for being a model for other departments.
Michael Albanese, the BPD’s newest police chief, got the ball rolling with a phone call.
While he was captain of the BPD’s patrol division, Albanese noticed the department seemed to have an “inordinate number” of involuntary holds, in which police temporarily commit a person to a mental health institution because they are a danger to others or themselves. He reached out to an official at the Los Angeles County mental health department and asked whether the issue was specific to Burbank.
No, the official told him. It was countywide.
That conversation eventually led to a collaboration between Burbank and L.A. County. In 2012, the BPD launched the MHET.
Albanese, who worked for the Los Angeles Police Department for 37 years, was a longtime crisis negotiator with the department’s SWAT team. He oversaw police negotiations with O.J. Simpson, according to the Los Angeles Times, while Simpson was in his Brentwood estate following the infamous police chase. Albanese’s career with the unit, he said, helped him understand the value of having mental health experts in the field. It also gave him what he calls the best training he ever received.
“Words matter: the words you use, how they are used, your listening skills,” he explained in a recent interview, “You manage yourself first before you manage the incident. … If you’ve got a bee in your bonnet or the circumstances are pretty unsettling, and you bring that emotion into the process, you’re not going to be successful.”
Albanese said the training also helped him become a better manager. Fellow LAPD veteran and then-interim BPD Police Chief Scott LaChasse invited him to join the department as a patrol captain in 2010. The BPD was a “wounded organization” at the time, Albanese said in an interview last year, as it was reeling from a number of controversies stemming from discrimination and unlawful use-of-force allegations. LaChasse, Albanese and other officials implemented a number of reforms in the following years, and Albanese became LaChasse’s deputy chief in 2015.
He was hired to the department’s top position in late December after a brief interim period following LaChasse’s retirement.
And while communicative training helps with managing people, Albanese, who is also the board president of Burbank counseling center Family Service Agency, said learning how to respond to mental and emotional crises is crucial.
“Rarely do people reach out to us when they’re having a good day,” he explained. “So, this is what I want the outcome to be, is that when we engage with folks that have that symptomology … we slow the process down, absent of any violent behavior or threats against any community member or family member, and see if it can be managed without using any type of force.”
The MHET could help with that goal. The BPD is planning on expanding the program to include a second two-person team, and last year the City Council approved funding for the department to outfit a vehicle designed to safely transport people who are experiencing a mental health crisis and need to be taken to a hospital, though supply chain woes have slowed the process.
The MHET has had zero uses of force since its inception, Albanese added.
In some cases, mental illness overlaps with other issues, such as homelessness. Albanese believes legislation giving police more leeway to place individuals experiencing mental health crises in involuntary holds would allow them to receive the care they need, though that approach has been criticized by some disability advocacy groups.
Still, Albanese said, his department’s goal is to help homeless people find sustained care.
“If there’s severe mental health disorders, it’s just wrong that they are not placed and not being taken care of,” he added. “I have a heart for these people. … We can do a better job.”
But the new police chief won’t just have to oversee issues relating to mental health. Traffic and reckless driving are among the city’s top issues, Albanese said, highlighted after a crash last year that killed three young people. Police officers have conducted more aggressive traffic law enforcement on Glenoaks Boulevard, where the collision occurred.
Still, Albanese believes education — whether it be via the BPD’s upcoming traffic safety courses with the Burbank Unified School District or between loved ones — remains a key factor.
“I’m begging parents, I’m begging friends, I’m begging family members to talk about it — because once you’re gone, you’re gone,” he said.
Other issues the BPD will face, Albanese said, include combating theft and ensuring the department is recruiting enough personnel. He wants to hire more female officers, he added, pointing out that about 12% of BPD officers are women — he’d like to see that number closer to 20% or 25%.
Asked what the BPD should do to engage with residents concerned about experiencing abuse from police because of their race, Albanese acknowledged that some people are guarded toward officers, but said he and his administrative staff are encouraging — or even requiring — their personnel to involve themselves more deeply with the community. Officers should join community groups, Albanese said, both to demystify themselves and to get feedback on what the department can improve.
As for Albanese himself, he said he’s already getting emails and phone calls from community members — whether to congratulate him on his new position or to express frustrations about a matter. He makes a point to respond.
“If I’m going to have a legacy, it would be that this was an organization that was really committed and engaged with [its] community,” Albanese said.