On the morning of Sept. 26, a San Francisco police officer responded to a complaint about loud music at a residential hotel for seniors and the mentally ill in the Tenderloin District. The officer accompanied the hotel manager to Room 708.
Behind the door was Michael Lee, a short 43-year-old with a mop of black hair, an engineering degree and a history of mental illness and drug abuse. Lee was still in bed, his court-appointed conservator said.
The officer entered the room with the manager’s assistance. A confrontation ensued. The officer fired several shots, killing Lee.
The San Francisco Police Department and the district attorney are investigating the incident. The police have declined to comment on what may have provoked the shooting, except to say that Lee was armed.
Lee’s death has raised new questions about how San Francisco police officers are trained to deal with the mentally ill and whether the department has sufficient resources to prepare for complex situations that can arise when officers come in contact with individuals who are behaving erratically.
Mental health care providers said that between 40 and 50 percent of San Francisco’s more than 5,000 homeless people have some form of mental illness. They come in frequent contact with the police: a recent study by San Francisco’s mental health board showed that officers spent an estimated 10 percent of each shift on calls involving mentally ill people, a workload significantly higher than most other counties in the state.
That dynamic creates a higher level of uncertainty and risk for police officers and for the individuals, even in what could otherwise be routine situations.
“It’s easy for us as civilians to say, ‘Well, why did they do that? He wasn’t out to hurt anybody,’” said Helynna Brooke, executive director of the mental health board. “But the thing that is true of people with mental illness is they’re less predictable in many ways. It’s unknown sometimes what a person is hearing or seeing with a mental illness and how they’re going to respond.”
After officers fatally shot a schizophrenic man in 2001, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors ordered the police department to initiate crisis-intervention training. The 40-hour class, which was designed by members of the mental health board, showed officers how to identify different types of mental illness, how to respond in crisis situations and even featured a panel of mentally ill people who recounted their experiences with the police.
But the class did not include information on how to respond to a mentally ill person who is armed. Despite urging from mental health advocates, the police also did not create a separate unit of officers to address calls related to the mentally ill. Such units are common in other cities.
The officer training was canceled in June because of budget cuts. The police said the training would be re-instated, but have not set a date.
“Especially with the incidents and things that have been happening, the ball is not going to be dropped; it’s important to have that kind of education for everybody,” said Sgt. Kelly Dunn of the department’s psychiatric liaison unit, which organizes training for officers.
Dunn added: “I got a promise from the command staff that we’d be able to continue to have excellent teachers. I’m very invested in this, too.”
Some law enforcement experts believe that equipping officers with Taser guns would also reduce the risk of lethal confrontations, by giving the police an option besides using their firearms. Dunn said Police Chief George Gascón had planned to include Tasers in the crisis training.
That plan was derailed in March, when the police commission rejected a proposal to allow officers to carry Tasers. The commissioners criticized the plan in part because it said the Tasers might encourage officers to use excessive force against the mentally ill.
Samara Marion, a policy analyst and staff lawyer for the office of citizen complaints, an independent police review board, said San Francisco police needed more detailed information about the mental health history of suspects and where mentally ill people live and congregate, to better prepare for potential confrontations like the one with Lee.
“The dispatch system should be able to identify those housing areas where there are people living independently but have a history of mental illness, so that the department, when they walk into a situation, would be able to know this is a residence where the majority of residents have a mental health history,” Marion said.
There is no way to know if such preparation could have prevented Lee’s death. But his case shows the complexities that officers face when confronted with individuals whose behavior is unpredictable.