An SFPD patrol car sits in front of a structure that had been burned to the ground in Santa Rosa. “The thing you walk away with is the sheer enormity of the devastation,” said Sgt. Michael Andraychak. Photo courtesy SFPD

For years, community members and advocacy groups have pushed the San Francisco Police  Department to reconsider how officers respond to calls involving a mental health crisis. Seven years after the department mandated crisis intervention training, the SFPD has made some slow progress, according to a report presented to the Police Commission Wednesday night.

In more than 50,000 mental health calls made to the SFPD in 2018, stated the SFPD’s Lt. Mario Molina, only 113 resulted in a use of force. That’s around 0.2 percent of the time.

While the department included general checks on well-being in its tally of mental health calls, even excluding these would mean force was used less than 0.5 percent of the time.

Molina, a member of the Crisis Intervention Team that trains SFPD officers, cited an example of police responding to a scene where someone had barricaded themselves inside. “Back in the ’90s, we were trained to rush in,” he said. Now, the department is making efforts to ensure officers are instead trained to de-escalate mental health crises, taking more time and keeping distance from a subject, and focusing on developing a rapport with the individual in crisis rather than taking a confrontational approach.

“I think the culture has changed,” said Molina. “At the beginning there was a little pushback, but now officers have embraced it.”

Molina also talked about how the crisis intervention program focuses on trying to prevent mental health crises in the first place. He told a story of one man who in 2016 was the subject of 49 mental health detention calls, one of the more severe designations for mental health crises also known as “5150” calls. Because the SFPD program works in conjunction with the Department of Public Health and community group partners, the city was able to help the man find housing and a job. In 2018, he was the subject of only a single 5150 call.

Above Officer Elizabeth Prillinger’s nameplate is her Crisis Intervention Training badge, which means that she has been trained to better assist and respond to people suffering from mental health or the physical impacts associated with homelessness. Photo by Nikka Singh

The police commissioners were impressed. “We hear so much of the negative,” said commissioner Damali Taylor. “It’s good and refreshing to celebrate good news.”

Commissioner Thomas Mazzucco noted that the new approach to mental health calls had also reduced the caseload for the Public Defender’s Office.

Reported instances of force by the police department as a whole decreased 27.6 percent between 2016 to 2018.

Magick Altman, a community member attending the meeting, praised the department’s progress in dealing with mental health crises, calling it “a huge change.” But she would like to see the crisis intervention program go even farther, saying in many cases it was not necessary for police to respond to mental health crises at all. “It would be great if the Public Health people get called first unless there is definitely a risk of violence,” she said.

Since the SFPD program began, the number of officers who have received the training has been slowly increasing, but the department still has years of work ahead. Citywide, only about 43 percent of the city’s roughly 2,300 officers have completed the training. A slightly higher 47 percent of officers in the Mission have done so.

“Our goal is to train the entire department,” said Molina. Each 40-hour crisis intervention training class can take a max of 30 officers, and classes are offered a little less than once a month. Through the first half of this year, about 93 more officers completed the training. It would take at least 6 more years to finish training the entire department at that rate.

The department’s next step is to train officers at San Francisco International Airport, where mental health calls have been on the rise lately. There will be a class offered specifically for officers assigned to the airport in July.

Community members calling 911 to address a potential mental health crisis can specifically request a crisis intervention team to respond.

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