Santa Clara police answer calls for crisis intervention
Santa Clara Police Department Crisis Intervention Specialists RJ Otico and Carlo Calupad respond to a call. Photo courtesy of Santa Clara Police Department.

When Santa Clara police go out on a call involving mental health, specially trained officers respond.

Santa Clara launched its Crisis Intervention Specialist (CIS) unit more than a year ago, and the program is having a positive impact. It has reshaped how the police department responds to individuals experiencing a mental health crisis.

“The majority of calls we go to have some element of mental health needs, and when you realize that, you kind of look at how you’re doing police work,” Santa Clara Police Chief Pat Nikolai told San José Spotlight.

The program began in October 2020, and has two CIS trained officers in its 221-member department who have undergone 40 hours of crisis intervention training.

Crisis intervention training is a specific program developed to teach a set of skills and techniques to promote safe interactions between people experiencing mental illness and police officers. The officers are taught to enter a mental health crisis situation calmly and patiently, and to avoid using force that often escalates the behavior of an individual in mental health crisis.

In 2021, the Santa Clara Police Department responded to 1,169 mental health-related events, 31% of which resulted in psychiatric hospitalization. Of those, the department’s crisis intervention team followed up on 460, according to a recent newsletter from Santa Clara Mayor Lisa Gillmor.

CIS officers typically dress in plainclothes and are tasked with monitoring and responding to calls that sound like they involve a mental health situation. The officers identify the situation and assist with needed mental health services. They assist families looking for information on how to help their family members experiencing a mental health episode.

Nikolai said the department’s crisis intervention specialists have handled a number of challenges and do so in a manner that differs from traditional policing.

For example, Nikolai said the police department had been dealing with someone calling 911 hundreds of times.

“We couldn’t solve that problem by an arrest, but the CIS unit was able to go out there, contact family members and get them the help they need to resolve the problem,” he said.

There have been situations where someone inside a home threatened suicide, he said. In the past, police officers might have tried to force their way inside to resolve the situation. The crisis intervention specialists are trained to use other approaches to de-escalate the situation, Nikolai said.

Currently, the program only operates on weekdays with two officers working. One of them is Crisis Intervention Specialist Carlo Calupad, who said he’s been on numerous calls for individuals dealing with suicidal ideation and drug-related mental health issues.

“It’s definitely had a positive impact. (Crisis Intervention Specialist RJ Otico) and I have built strong relationships with members in the community, with families of those that have a loved one living with mental illness, and it’s definitely broadened our options with how we deal with these cases,” Calupad told San José Spotlight.

Several years ago, Calupad was involved in an officer-involved shooting in Salinas, in which a 20-year-old woman allegedly pointed a replica gun at responding officers while experiencing a mental health crisis. He declined to comment further on the incident.

Officer-involved fatalities have occurred in Santa Clara before. At least 10 people died in the presence of or because of actions taken by the Santa Clara Police Department between 2002 and 2019, according to Fatal Encounters, a database tracker involving police interactions. Eight of those involved use of deadly force by Santa Clara police officers, according to the database.

Nikolai said officers are motivated to help anyone who calls the police get the help they need, regardless of whether it’s a life and death situation or something less threatening, referring to the department’s history.

“Officers never want to have to use force,” he said. “If this allows us to de-escalate a situation and resolve it peacefully, we’re all in for that.”

Contact Kate Bradshaw at [email protected] or @bradshk14 on Twitter.

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