San Jose police plans to expand new approach to mental health calls
SJPD's Mobile Crisis Response Team responds to calls for those experiencing a mental crisis. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

Phil Watkins was 23 when he was shot to death by San Jose police after he called 911 saying he was going to kill himself and was holding children hostage.

Sharon Watkins said her son was shot 10 times when he ran toward officers holding a pocket knife. Recalling the confrontation six years ago, she said police showed no compassion and did not attempt to de-escalate the situation despite her son’s mental distress.

The situation may have ended differently today.

In October, the San Jose Police Department created the Mobile Crisis Response Team (MCRT), which pairs officers and mental health clinicians to de-escalate crises and aid people experiencing behavioral issues. And now that program will become a permanent part of the police department’s protocol.

Sgt. Mike Porter told San José Spotlight the program was so successful that SJPD is transitioning it from a part-time, two-day a week assignment to a full-time unit. He said building rapport with people experiencing mental breakdowns can make all the difference in reaching a safe resolution.

Officers in the unit receive 10 hours of crisis and intervention training, learning how to divert individuals and connect them with mental health support services. 

“You can’t arrest your way out of every situation,” Porter said. “Our priority is to safely, calmly make contact. Patrol officers don’t always have the luxury to do that because they have a high volume of calls.”

MCRT began through a $750,000 Department of Justice grant. Now, SJPD looks to create a permanent unit in March consisting of two sergeants and eight officers. The officers wear gray sweatshirts — instead of traditional police uniforms — along with their duty belts to help de-escalate situations.

SJPD spokesperson Officer Steve Aponte said the police department launched MCRT because patrols were responding to calls involving mental health crises “in alarming numbers.”

“In the past, we’d get a call from someone having a mental crisis. Officers would arrive and detain them. They’d get put in handcuffs, thrown in the back of a police car and transported to Emergency Psychiatric Services at Valley Medical Center or held in jail until mental health dealt with them,” he said. “Now they receive mental health services right away.”

A 2018 Santa Clara County civil grand jury report found about 40% of police shootings in the county involved someone experiencing a mental health emergency. Although the county also has a MCRT, this is the San Jose Police Department’s first.

“Now we have officers well trained in mental health working with clinicians who wanted to be in the field but needed the safety component of having officers with them,” Aponte said. “With those clinician and officers together, they can de-escalate and resolve those emergencies and minimize police enforcement.”

 

Alternative options

However, not everyone is convinced police should answer any calls involving mental health crises.

Yvonne Maxwell, executive director of Ujima Adult and Family Services in San Jose, which provides mental health services to Black families, said the presence of armed police escalates situations. And, she added, officers are not needed most of the time.

“In my years of doing this work with police being involved, it’s ‘Let’s hurry and get this done’ with force and Tasers,'” Maxwell said. “They need to control the situation. That’s their training. That’s not care.”

The Behavioral Health Contractors’ Association (BHCA), a local network of 30 community-based nonprofit mental health providers, agrees that officers should not respond to calls requiring mental health intervention. BHCA is developing a community response team as an alternative to the police department’s program. 

“In cases where a person in crisis may fear or not trust police, the situation may escalate upon seeing an officer,” said Elisa Koff-Ginsborg, executive director of BHCA. “Family members and individuals facing crisis for a long time have said we needed to have an alternative to police response.”

Koff-Ginsborg said people often call police because they don’t know who else to call. That’s why BHCA is developing a new three-digit phone number. 

Porter said SJPD is working to change its approach, but it’s going to take time to build community trust.

“Once we start to change the perspective of how people see us,” he said, “we’ll get more buy in from the public.”

Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]

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