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Advocates Say SF Police Unprepared for Crisis Calls

San Francisco police officers
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San Francisco police officers
Police get 30 mental health-related calls daily, but officers are undertrained to handle them

Earlier last week, as furor over two officer-involved shootings mounted, then-San Francisco Police Chief George Gascon stepped in front of news cameras to do damage control. He defended the officers, and promised to evaluate the department’s training and make another push to equip officers with Tasers.

He staged a splashy media event for reporters on Wednesday, showcasing the department’s training on use of force. And he announced plans to send a team of police sergeants and an Office of Citizen Complaints policy analyst on a $4,000 trip this week to Memphis, Tenn., to study that city's model of police crisis intervention.

But advocates for the mentally ill say the police department is taking a Band Aid approach to a problem that’s long demanded major surgery without consulting them as the experts. They bemoan the June cancellation of a department training that taught officers how to handle crisis calls involving people with psychiatric disabilities. The department said they couldn’t afford the $25,000, 40-hour trainings. Advocates say they can’t afford the human and other costs of not having the trainings.

“While they’re sending people to Memphis, they’re cancelling training,” said Helynna Brooke, executive director of the city’s mental health board, who helped design and lead the training that got cancelled. “It’s a total waste of money to go to Memphis, Tennessee.”

Months after the Sept. 26 shooting death of a mentally ill man, Michael Lee, in his residential hotel room, advocates remain concerned about the department’s competence to deal with the mentally ill in a city that has one of the largest mentally ill populations in the state.

The city’s police force is far behind that of many cities across the country when it comes to officer training and response. The Office of Citizen Complaints (OCC) made a series of recommendations in September, including implementing a separate crisis intervention team; improving field supervision for crisis calls; revising the department’s written philosophy and procedures for handling encounters with mentally ill people in crisis; and designing a data collection system to review and evaluate the police department’s response. The Memphis trip is one of the police department’s first steps towards implementing the recommendations, though no changes have occurred yet.

“In light of all these ongoing problems, when we cut down the number of hours officers are trained in dealing with the mentally ill, it doesn’t seem like it’s a smart time to get Tasers,” said Police Commissioner Angela Chan, who sits on a subcommittee on police response to the mentally ill. “In those situations, weapons are not helpful. What’s helpful is smarter approaches to dealing with mentally ill members of the community.”

In San Francisco, the need for an educated police force is great.

Deinstitutionalization of mental patients in the 1970s has led to their chronic homelessness and lack of health care. Mental health advocates say the police, historically a last resort, have become first-responders in treating the city’s sizeable population of mentally ill.

But not all police officers are prepared for the task. In June 2001, officers fatally shot Idriss Stelley, a schizophrenic man, at the Sony Metreon Theater. Uproar over his shooting death prompted the Board of Supervisors to require the police department to put 25 percent of the force through the 40-hour crisis intervention training within two years and ordered all officers to eventually undergo the training.

But by the time the program was cut last June, less than half of the department had taken the course. Officers who have been trained are not specifically deployed to crisis calls, so their expertise is only randomly utilized. Even officers who completed the department’s abbreviated 8-hour training are not always prepared to handle crisis calls. Some criticized the training for not addressing the problem of mentally ill subjects armed with knives.

In 2008, while attempting to commit a schizophrenic woman to a hospital, officers forced their way into her Mission district apartment and shot her after she brandished a knife at them. One of the officers, a sergeant, had completed the abbreviated training, but according to the OCC, failed to wait for backup, devise a tactical plan appropriate for addressing a barricaded mentally ill person and seemed to lack knowledge of procedures for committing someone involuntarily. The OCC recently ruled the department had a failure of policy in that incident, and the woman, Teresa Sheehan, is now in a wheelchair.

In light of two recent shootings, advocates say the training deficit is becoming more obvious and serious.

Last Tuesday, officers shot a mentally ill man in a wheelchair after he threw a knife. On Dec. 28, officers fatally shot 46-year-old Vinh Bui, who they were told was suffering from mental problems, after he allegedly wielded a scalpel at them.

“They’re turning to Tasers as the panacea, and I think that can be a tool in the toolbox,” said OCC policy analyst Samara Marion, who is accompanying sergeants to Memphis. “But the department needs to revamp the way it responds to mental health crisis calls. There needs to be a much more thoughtful plan that [allows officers] to respond more appropriately when they have notice as to what they’re walking into.”

Such encounters are unlikely to decrease. San Francisco police respond to about 30 mental health-related calls per day—twice the number of most California counties. That number doesn’t include the countless other calls and contacts officers have with the mentally ill during patrol and in response to other calls for service. And with future budget cuts threatening mental health services throughout the state, that’s only expected to get worse.

The OCC says the department needs both training for the entire force and a separate, specialized crisis intervention team.

Although the police department is considering following Memphis, in 2001, police and mental health officials decided against implementing Memphis’ crisis intervention team (CIT) model because they considered it inappropriate for a larger city.

Memphis launched its team as a collaborative effort with mental health organizations in 1988. Officers from each patrol precinct, about 225 total, volunteer to join the team and undergo the training, and are dispatched to crisis calls during their shifts. Various stakeholders, including mental health providers, also oversee the program. The model was adopted in San Jose.

But with a higher number of calls in San Francisco, officials 10 years ago decided that every officer required special training.

“If you were the CIT officer in the Tenderloin, you’d be up and down that block constantly,” said Michael Sullivan, a retired San Francisco police sergeant who helped design and lead the cancelled training. “Just with the sheer volume of calls involving people with psychiatric disabilities, every cop needs to do this. It’s like Psych 101.”

In addition to the reinstatement of the class, Brooke said she’d like to see the city place less of a burden on the police department as first responders to crisis calls by setting aside $1.5 million for the mobile crisis treatment team, a separate emergency mental health provider, to operate 24/7.

If the police commission votes to allow Tasers, Chan said she’d also like to see some changes.

“We need lengthier training for officers on how to deescalate situations before we go on to adopt Tasers,” she said. The police commission may vote on the issue as soon as Feb. 9.

As the department moves forward with plans – a push for Tasers and the trip to Memphis – Brooke and others criticized Gascon for failing to consult mental health providers in the city.

“If they need to retool the class, then by all means do it,” Sullivan said. “But if you’re going to retool it, why don’t you sit back with the folks who are in health field? Talk to people in the community. It’s plan with, not for. The disability community has another version of that: Not about us, without us.”

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