San Jose college students demand changes to 988 hotline
Students Against Mass Incarceration organizer Kat Adamson speaks at a San Jose State University rally on Nov. 17. Protesters demanded Santa Clara County supervisors make changes to the county's suicide prevention hotline. Photo by Brian Howey.

    Activists are demanding changes to Santa Clara County’s suicide prevention hotline amid concerns the service is failing to live up to community expectations.

    College advocacy group Students Against Mass Incarceration gathered at San Jose State University on Thursday to urge the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors to make several changes to how the 988 hotline is run. The group is asking supervisors to increase transparency about how 988 calls are dispatched, provide a direct phone number to the county’s newest mobile crisis team and expand public information about the hotline.

    “As it stands, there’s been a lot of community issues with (988). People report that nobody shows up, or they ask for a no-police response, and then officers still show up,” organizer Sara Tapia-Silva told San José Spotlight. “We just don’t understand how calling 988 would be different from 911.”

    Local activists have been hopeful the 988 hotline will create an effective police alternative to mental health crisis response in Santa Clara County. But until last week, the county’s only mobile crisis team without a law enforcement officer was the Mobile Response and Stabilization Services. That team only serves children and young adults ages 18-21 in crisis.

    On Wednesday, San José Spotlight revealed a laundry list of issues plaguing the hotline—including staffing shortages, long hold times and in rare instances, police-only responses to serious mental health crises—since it launched four months ago. In an August incident, San Jose police officers arrested a 21-year-old woman experiencing a psychotic episode after a youth drop-in center called 988 to request a crisis team.

    “When police show up, it sometimes ends with fatal results,” Jovana Ibarra, an organizer with Students Against Mass Incarceration, told San José Spotlight. “It’s important to ensure (people in crisis) have a safer option.”

    Last week, the Trusted Response Urgent Support Team (TRUST) launched as first mobile 988 team that does not include police. TRUST serves all residents countywide and includes an EMT-licensed first aid responder, a crisis intervention specialist and a peer responder with lived experience in mental illness, substances use or homelessness.

    Karen Meagher, director of Pacific Clinics, the nonprofit contracted by the county to run TRUST, said 988 callers can request operators to connect them directly to TRUST. But protesters said many residents still don’t know about TRUST because the county hasn’t advertised the service enough.

    “What is the point of these services if the public isn’t aware of them or how to access them?” said Kat Adamson, an organizer with Students Against Mass Incarceration.

    Activists from Silicon Valley De-Bug joined the protest to share their concerns as well. Local families who’ve lost loved ones to police shootings believe services like TRUST can reduce these shootings, but some are wary of the service after reports surfaced of police-only responses to 988 calls.

    Laurie Valdez, whose partner Antonio Guzman Lopez was fatally shot by San Jose State University police officers in 2014, said aggressive officers can exacerbate already-precarious mental health emergencies. Until callers understand how 988 operators assign crisis calls, and who will respond, residents need a direct line to TRUST so they can decide who responds, Valdez said.

    “988 is supposed to be a non-police response,” she said. “That is what TRUST is about, it’s about care and support. If we had had a TRUST team (in 2014), Antonio would be alive today.”

    Contact Brian Howey at [email protected] or @SteelandBallast on Twitter.

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