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Dealing with Individuals in Mental Health Crisis Why are Police Forced into these Encounters?

July 1, 2017
Martin Halloran SFPOA President

Policing San Francisco, as with most US metropolitans, has become increasingly difficult, for a variety of reasons; homeless populations on our streets have grown exponentially; District Attorney George Gascon's Prop 47 decriminalization of illegal narcotics has led to more and more addicts self-medicating; and helpless individuals who suffer from mild to major mental health issues who are not receiving or who are refusing services. When you couple those who are suffering from mental health issues and living on the streets with the lack of housing, easy access to illegal narcotics, alcohol abuse, and no support from government or family, then you have a recipe for increased encounters with law enforcement, some of which do not end well.     

I do not know any police officer who is a licensed psychiatrist or psychologist, although there might be one or two. Nonetheless, the police are forced, time and time again, into dealing with those who need and deserve professional care, but they are often dismissed or disregarded by families and by the government who should have seen to their well-being. 

When that happens, and the individual finds him or herself in crisis, lashing out towards a society that has abandoned them and thrown them to the curb and when all else fails, what happens?

Why, call the cops, of course. 

Officers respond, not knowing the history of the troubled individual, and do what they can based only on an initial, often stressful interaction. If the individual directs his or her anger, frustration, and hostility at the closest target (the police) then the officers must react. Officers dread harsh actions that must be taken, but they are not the sacrificial lambs accounting for the failures of society and of those who truly should be caring for the mentally ill. 

Most law enforcement agencies throughout the country have embraced and introduced Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) for their officers. The SFPD has done that along with de-escalation training for those officers on the front lines. This training is certainly beneficial, but 40-hours of classroom instruction does not equate to an officer having the skills, knowledge, and experience of a licensed psychiatrist or psychologist. Unfortunately, the police are judged and scrutinized by some who chastise us when encounters with those in distress don't go as well as they would have if they were on a doctor’s couch in an office.

Last week, a mentally disturbed person entered the parking lot of Mission Station after he saw officers walk out of the station’s back door. This individual advanced on the officers with a knife in hand and screamed "I'm ready to go! Take me!" The officers showed a tremendous amount of restraint. They called for back-up, and numerous officers responded using less lethal force to subdue this individual.

Ironically, two years earlier, an almost identical incident happened at Mission Station. Another disturbed individual waited until officers walked into the parking lot. He then approached the officers and pointed a gun at them. The officers had no choice but to use deadly force. A note was discovered later on the suspect expressing his sorrow that he had to put the officers through this ordeal. Sadly, the man wanted to end his own life, but he could not do it by his own hand. The gun, it turns out, was a replica.

The City of San Francisco, the State of California, and those responsible for their family members well-being need to step up. When all else fails, and you are forced to call the cops, you can’t place the blame on officers who have only the minimal amount of training to deal with those hurting or troubled. 

In October 2015, Laura's Law was passed to deal with those mentally ill individuals who may need to be controlled in a secure environment. Who watered down the legislation to the point where it is almost useless? Former member of the Board of Supervisors, David Campos. 

In October 2016, Mayor Ed Lee announced a plan to have mental health professionals help police officers resolve conflicts with suspects to avoid escalation of force by the police. I was at that press conference and fully supported the plan. To date, I have not seen it in action, out in the field, where it is desperately needed. 

The police are forced into situations where individuals are in need of health and mental services. Many times they are begging for help and direction. We do everything we can, but we should not be that persons last resort.