Recently, several law enforcement agencies in Santa Clara County have unveiled specialized units designed to de-escalate interactions with citizens who may be in mental health crisis. San Jose PD launched a one-year pilot program in October 2020 that links specially trained officers with clinicians from the County’s Behavioral Health Services (BHS). BHS has been active with its Mobile Crisis Response Teams (MCRT) since January 2018.
Our government officials are to be applauded for these efforts to improve outcomes between police and citizens in mental health crisis.
But more should be done at a time when this issue has the public’s attention like seldom before, in large part because of the Black Lives Matter and defund-the-police movements.
The 2018 Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury (CGJ) focused on this issue in its report, “Police and the Mentally Ill – Improving Outcomes.” The report states 31 individuals were killed in interactions with police agencies in our county from 2013-2017, nine of which were citizens undergoing a mental health crisis.
Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) exposes officers to the varied mental conditions that could be encountered and how to deescalate such encounters. The grand jury discovered that law enforcement agencies were providing CIT beyond the training received in the police academy. The CGJ report recommends that each law enforcement agency continue in their efforts to provide the additional CIT training to every officer. The CGJ report also recommends agencies activate MCRT teams and expand the use of these teams. Nearly every agency responded to the report by stating it intended to give additional CIT training to every officer.
Now, two years after that grand jury report, law enforcement has taken some positive steps, but concerns remain.
Positive developments include the BHS MCRT deployment. Currently there are six available MCRT teams to respond both to calls from a community help line and at the request of law enforcement. Calls for assistance can result in service referrals or field visits.
MCRT delivered 310 field visits in 2019, but the number of responses soared to 675 in the first nine months of 2020, based on a November 2020 status report to a Board of Supervisors subcommittee. Law enforcement made 386 referrals to MCRT in 2019 and 487 between January to September 2020. Nearly every police agency in the county utilized MCRT.
Not so positive is the number of deaths in police encounters. From June 2018 to October 2020, 11 citizens died at the hands of law enforcement in Santa Clara County, five of which involved factors of mental illness based on the website FatalEncounters.
Clearly, this must improve. Our association’s recent survey of selected law enforcement agencies showed incremental progress (Milpitas) and great progress (Gilroy, San Jose, Mountain View and the Sheriff) in exposing every officer to additional CIT training.
But troubling is the county’s decision more than a year ago to reduce Sheriff’s Office CIT training to a 24-hour course from 40 hours. The other major local CIT provider, San Jose PD, continues with a 40-hour course. It is our understanding that the class discussing the various kinds of mental conditions, previously presented by the professional organization NAMI, has been eliminated.
We, the Santa Clara County Grand Jury Association, fear this is the wrong direction for the times.
The Black Lives Matter movement catalyzed a re-examination of the role police should play when confronting persons in mental health crisis. An April study from a Stanford Law School policy practicum, Safety Beyond Policing: Promoting Care Over Criminalization, supports the use of mental health counselors rather than officers in many situations involving the homeless and mentally ill.
Police interactions with people in mental crisis will always be fraught with danger. But the numbers of persons in mental health crisis who die in incidents with law enforcement are still too high. The six MCRT teams are a great achievement, but having CIT trained officers can only increase good outcomes.
County law enforcement agencies must ensure all of their officers receive additional CIT training, while the county boosts funding and deployment for its MRCT teams.
Luis Sanchez, Michael Krey and Harry Oberhelman are members of the Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jurors Association.