SFPD taps mental health pros for crisis response

Mental health professionals will soon respond to the scene of police confrontations with people who might be mentally ill or under the influence, city officials announced Tuesday.

The Crisis Intervention Specialists team, announced today by Mayor Ed Lee, interim Police Chief Toney Chaplin and Department of Public Health Director Barbara Garcia, will be on call 24/7 to help police negotiate and deescalate incidents involving people who pose a potential threat to themselves or others.

In addition, the team’s five members will also help provide mental health evaluations on the scene, support those affected by incidents and provide crisis response as needed. The team will also conduct ongoing crisis intervention training with police.

Addressing a police academy class Tuesday, Lee told recruits while they would undoubtedly confront people with mental health and drug issues, the new program is intended to make it easier to do so while creating the time and distance needed to protect lives.

Lee told the recruits:

“I want you to know that the rest of the city is not simply asking you to carry the entire burden of that. … We are going to be partners with you as best we can.”

Chaplin said that department policies emphasizing the need for “time and distance” were already paying off in lives saved. He cited recent incidents with suspects including a July 6 standoff at Jones and McAllister streets that ended with the suspect safely in custody:

“I’ve since met with the mother and father of the man whose life we saved and they’re incredibly grateful.”

Chaplin told the recruits that things might not always work out so well, but that crisis intervention training and support from professionals would “give you those additional tools in your toolbelt.”

The health department already has a Comprehensive Crisis Services Unit, which for more than a decade has provided services for the mobile assessment and care of adults, children and those affected by violence and other critical events.

The difference, according to Garcia, is that mental health workers will play a direct role in the police response instead of just staying behind the scenes and working with the community:

“We’ll be side by side and able to help them. … Right now we’re working behind the line.”