The exterior of the San Jose Police Department
San Jose Police Department headquarters. File photo.

San Jose is struggling to divert 911 calls related to mental and emotional distress away from police, despite the county adopting the 988 mental crisis hotline two years ago to handle those situations.

A recent report shows county mental health teams in 2023 responded to just 2% of nearly 60,000 San Jose 911 calls that officials found better suited for a non-police response. Even in those situations, police responded jointly. San Jose only started rerouting certain lower level calls to 988, a suicide and crisis hotline, in January, and police are still being dispatched because alternative response teams don’t have enough resources to meet demand.

“The San Jose Police Department’s efforts to coordinate with the county to identify 911 calls that can be transferred to the 988 mental health crisis hotline is one of many steps we are taking in our ongoing efforts to identify appropriate alternative responses to police,” Stacie Shih, spokesperson for the San Jose Police Department, told San José Spotlight.

SJPD officials didn’t answer questions about why it’s taken so long to figure out which calls to redirect to 988, which was specifically created to reduce the call load for 911 operators.

Of the 218,763 911 calls analyzed in 2023, nearly 60,000 — or 27% — fell within categories that city officials recommended for a non-police response, such as welfare checks, substance abuse and disturbances.

A San Jose Police Department cruiser at the corner of W. Taylor Street and N. San Pedro Street. File photo.

Assistant City Manager Lee Wilcox told the San Jose City Council during a Feb. 27 discussion about the report that the city needs time with the county to work out the issues.

“Whether it’s the county’s TRUST team, Psychiatric Emergency Response Team or any of the other programs, it’s really on us as a city understanding … how do we help expand 988?” Wilcox said.

Welfare checks are a prime example of mental health-related calls that city officials have identified for a non-police response. They occur when someone calls 911 because they cannot locate someone or are concerned about somebody’s well-being, and often don’t involve criminality. This, however, is not part of 988 services.

Police made more than 52,000 welfare checks between 2021 and 2023, according to the report. More than 39,000 of those checks resulted in no police report. The report says that other cities including Albuquerque and Denver use police alternatives for welfare checks and that nearly all these jurisdictions have seen success when doing so.

Councilmembers directed the city to coordinate with the county on how to turn over more calls to 988, and how to expand alternative team staffing and resources. Wilcox responded he could come back with a plan in the fall.

“I’m feeling a sense of urgency, so I don’t want to see this come back in two years,” Councilmember Pam Foley said at the meeting.

Officials are already looking at helping fund an expansion of one specific county crisis response team, TRUST. At last Tuesday’s budget meeting, the council unanimously agreed to explore the cost of adding another TRUST team — a non-police response — to cover San Jose, similarly complaining that service is spread too thin. The county is also working on a direct line to TRUST.

“It seems to me that the movement towards getting alternative responses gives us better outcomes. So to me it is really worth the investment,” Vice Mayor Rosemary Kamei said at the meeting.

The 988 call center operates on a 24/7 basis, with 16 full-time employees, six part-time employees and 62 volunteers. The are three different mobile crisis teams in the county that go out in the field with a crisis intervention police officer on board. The city also operates two combined police clinician teams, but they only respond to 911 calls.

When 988 calls come in, trained mental health crisis operators work to deescalate the situation, navigate the individual or family to resources and dispatch mobile crisis teams as needed. The 988 number replaced the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, folding all mental health crisis services into one hotline.

In addition to mental health responses, the report says officers should not be responding to issues like parking violations. The report found that officers responded to 7,723 parking-related 911 calls between 2021 and 2023.

“We already have a well-built alternate response for parking. We have parking enforcement officers. But we found in the analysis that we are still sending officers out,” Assistant City Manager Peter Hamilton said at the meeting.

Police and city employees told councilmembers there are certain public safety scenarios they feel should remain in police purview, such as domestic violence and vehicle stops.

“While we believe there is an opportunity for alternate responses from organizations with specialized skills that would not only provide a more pragmatic service but ease the burden on an already overburdened police department, it’s crucial to recognize the department’s commitment to continuing its role as a primary responder for calls involving public safety,” Deputy Police Chief Brian Shah said at the meeting.

Contact Brandon Pho at [email protected] or @brandonphooo on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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