Starting in September, four police departments in San Mateo County will welcome a new staff member to the force: a mental health clinician, ready to be deployed into the field.
Following a wave of police reform efforts across the Bay Area, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors voted earlier this month to launch a pilot that embeds mental health professionals into several law enforcement agencies. The hope is that the added expertise will help cops better respond to people experiencing a mental health crisis and avoid conflicts that can be fatal.
Under the program, the cities of Redwood City, San Mateo, Daly City and South San Francisco will each have a full-time clinician responding to 911 calls, dispatched alongside a sworn officer to incidents involving someone suspected of having a mental health crisis. Though working in a tag team, it will be up to the clinician to assess those in crisis and "exercise their independent judgment" for how to handle the situation.
In less extreme cases, clinicians will refer those in crisis to mental health services. In cases where the person is a danger to themselves or others, they will be placed in a psychiatric hold and transferred to a medical facility. The pilot makes no mention of arrests and jail transport, and makes clear that the goal is intervention over incarceration.
"I think this is going to make a world of difference in peoples' lives," said Supervisor Carole Groom.
The pilot, which will cost $876,000 split between the cities and the county, has been spearheaded by Supervisor Don Horsley a retired law enforcement officer who served as San Mateo County's sheriff for 14 years. He said people suffering from a mental illness are often dealing with serious conditions by the time they have a run-in with the cops, leading to altercations that can result in serious injury or even deaths. Some of the incidents in San Mateo County have been "heartbreaking," he said, and the pilot is a response to that.
"I just thought there must be something we can do better," Horsley said.
Controversial incidents include the police killing of 36-year-old Chinedu Okobi in 2018, who was unarmed and reportedly struggling with mental health issues. Sheriff's deputies stopped Okobi after he was found walking into traffic and forcefully apprehended him, tasering him multiple times. He later suffered cardiac arrest and died, and officers have since been cleared of wrongdoing.
Other deadly confrontations with the mentally ill the same year include Warren Ragudo, 34, who was tased by Daly City police while handcuffed and later died, and Ramzi Saad, 55, who was killed by Redwood City police after being tased.
Police routinely find themselves doing social work, responding to non-violent and non-emergency calls related to mental health, drug addiction, poverty and homelessness, Horsley said. He remembers handling his own encounters with the mentally ill well, but that he didn't have the formal training or background to identify symptoms and act accordingly.
"There were times where you can get exasperated," he said. "I didn't really understand schizophrenia as a young officer, and what I said to someone who is schizophrenic could be dramatically misinterpreted."
The police chiefs in San Mateo and Redwood City were quick to jump on the idea of a pilot and were eager to partner with the county, Horsley said. South San Francisco and Daly City later came on board, while smaller cities to the south did not make a push for participation. While the county has buy-in from top police officials, Horsley said he believes the rank-and-file officers will be open to change.
The pilot comes at a time when activists along the Peninsula and throughout the Bay Area are calling for police reform, including changes to the way communities respond to nonviolent emergency calls. In lieu of armed officers, social workers and health care staff may be better suited to respond to those suffering from drug abuse, mental illness or homelessness.
Last year, Oakland created a new program called the Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland, or MACRO, which has emergency medical technicians and trained members of the community responding to emergency calls without the presence of an officer. Unlike the pilot in San Mateo County, MACRO does not include mental health professionals, which are costly and difficult to recruit, and do not have sworn officers responding in tow.
Some argued the San Mateo pilot doesn't go far enough in creating a firewall between social work and law enforcement. At the Jan. 12 Board of Supervisors meeting, Redwood City councilwoman Lissette Espinoza-Garnica said she could not be more "vehemently opposed" to having police ride along with the clinicians to respond to suspected mental health crises. She said the insistence on having cops at the scene is predicated on the idea that people suffering mental health issues are presumed to be violent.
"I disagree with folks saying this is a way of decriminalizing mental health when you're literally sending in mental health clinicians with a paramilitary force," she said.
Horsley said he understands the criticism, and that multiple outreach programs run by the county are exactly that -- social work without police. But he said there are situations, like when someone is armed or barricaded with a weapon, where the clinician simply cannot work solo.
"There are those cases that require an immediate response, and law enforcement should always be there to stabilize the scene," he said.