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SF Police to Train Crisis Team for Mentally Ill

San Francisco police
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San Francisco police
The city will adopt a model used successfully in Memphis to intervene with services and defuse conflicts

Michael Lee’s shooting death by a San Francisco police officer began with a noise complaint. Vinh Bui’s began with reports of a domestic dispute. Wheelchair-bound Randal Dunklin had been vandalizing city-owned vehicles. 

A series of recent officer-involved shootings raised furor about the department’s response to the mentally ill, renewing criticisms that have plagued the department for years. But the San Francisco police commission has decided to adopt a program that could widely transform how police interact with the mentally ill.

In response to the recent spate of shootings, commissioners voted unanimously Wednesday night to establish a crisis intervention team (CIT), a special fleet of officers trained to respond to calls involving mentally ill people in crisis.

Just as SWAT members or hostage negotiators are called to respond to certain calls, CIT officers are dispatched to respond to calls involving people in psychiatric crisis. After deescalating potentially dangerous encounters, the officers divert people in need of help away from jails and into mental health services.

“This system is broken. It’s become a revolving door,” said commissioner Jim Hammer during the hearing. “This is not going to stop every shooting, it’s not going to stop use of force, but I think this will reduce injuries to cops and reduce instances of use of force on mentally ill folks.”

The team is based on a model that originated in Memphis in 1988, when that city's police department was facing similar criticisms of excessive force against the mentally ill. Under the program, which has been implemented in cities across the country, about 25 percent of the patrol force undergoes training to become crisis intervention specialists.

Nearly 100 people packed into the hearing room in City Hall Wednesday night for the three-hour commission meeting, which included testimony from the creators of the Memphis program, as well as local mental health providers and advocates. A lengthy public comment session brought many to the microphone who had personal experiences with mental illness and the police. They offered almost resounding support, and when commissioners voted to adopt the program, a round of applause.

San Francisco police officials originally considered and rejected the model in 2001 over concerns that such a small percentage of CIT officers would be insufficient for the city’s large population of mentally ill. Instead, they opted to train the entire force in crisis intervention techniques. But San Francisco’s training, which was cancelled over the summer due to a funding shortfall, never included instruction on how to respond to a mentally ill person armed with a knife. Ten years later, less than half of the department has undergone the training, and the recent shootings, some of which involved officers who had completed the 40 hours, called the effectiveness of the training into question.

The resolution calls for a series of changes, and many challenges lay ahead.

The commission must first assemble a group of mental health providers, community advocates, police and others in the criminal justice system to spearhead the program, which requires collaboration and communication between the usually disassociated groups.

In Memphis, mental health professionals and advocates provide officers with training, free of charge.

The city’s dispatch system, which has received its own share of criticisms, will also require new training and policies. Dispatchers will be responsible for gathering information about a subject’s mental health status and dispatching CIT officers to crisis calls.

Officers with three to five years experience can apply for a spot on the specialized team. Once selected, the officers wear recognizable CIT badges and work regular patrol duties in their districts. They assume leadership roles during crisis calls, directing other officers in proper response. After securing the scene, officers refer or transport individuals to mental health services.

“Individuals who were mentally ill recognized the badge,” said Samara Marion, a policy analyst for the Office of Citizen Complaints who accompanied police officials on a trip to Memphis. “They knew the officers and the officers understood their needs and had a rapport. The level of commitment and the level of respect was something I never ever expected.” 

Mental health professionals say officers definitely need help. 

Police in San Francisco interact frequently with the mentally ill, particularly in the Tenderloin, SOMA and the Mission. Last year, more than a fifth of the 25,000 people who accessed city mental health services were booked into the county jail. In a recent use-of-force study, the police department found a third of officer-involved shootings during a recent five-year-period involved individuals who were mentally ill.

“So many of them are cynical,” said MaryKate Connor, the founder of the recently disbanded Caduceus Outreach Services. “I’ve had officers say, ‘I’m not going to take him to the hospital, they’re just going to let him out in an hour. I’ll take him to jail.’ Officers on the ground are frustrated. If we work together, this can change.”

According to Memphis officials, arrest rates of mentally ill individuals dropped to 1 percent under the CIT program. Nationally, that number is around 20 percent. Officer-involved shootings also decreased. Before CIT, the Memphis police department had one or two shootings per year; after two decades of the program, the department has seen only three. Officer injuries dropped 85 percent and injuries to mentally ill individuals dropped 40 percent. Individuals who encountered a CIT officer were also three times more likely to seek out treatment.

Dr. Randolph Dupont, who helped develop the Memphis program, noted San Francisco’s large mentally ill and homeless populations. But he said the city also has a uniquely large number of mental health service providers and more resources than many cities that have started CIT programs. Still, the program is likely to take more than a year to establish.

“I’ve been impressed with your department and your mental health services,” he said. “I think this is something that could be readily adopted.”

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