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About Mental Health

In a year when 6 of 7 police shootings involved the mentally ill, San Jose officers join national coalition seeking federal funding to improve outcomes.

SAN JOSE — Amid a string of high-profile police shootings involving mentally ill people, San Jose officers have joined a national effort to secure federal funding and resources to better train officers who are commonly first-responders to violent mental-health episodes.

The San Jose Police Officers’ Association is joining a dozen big-city police unions converging in New York City on Thursday to formally announce a legislative agenda dubbed CARE — Compassionate and Accountable Responses for Everyone — asking the federal government to bankroll new equipment, training, and legal outreach they assert will drive down fatal clashes with the mentally ill.

San Jose police investigate the scene of an officer-involved shooting on the 2200 block of Tully Road in San Jose, Calif., on Sunday, May 7, 2017. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

In San Jose, six of seven police shootings this year have involved mentally ill people in crisis, three of which were fatal. State estimates from the past few years purport that mental-health episodes account for as much as 40 percent of officer-involved shootings in California.

The San Jose Police Officers’ Association is joining a dozen big-city police unions converging in New York City on Thursday to announce a legislative agenda asking the federal government to bankroll new equipment, training, and legal outreach they assert will drive down fatal clashes with the mentally ill. 
“You’ve got too many shootings that involve the mentally ill across the nation every single day,” said Sgt. Paul Kelly, SJPOA president. “We can’t wait to fix a problem just in San Jose or Oakland.”The New York announcement is also firmly political, driven in large part by a recent murder and manslaughter indictment against New York City police Sgt. Hugh Barry, who fatally shot a mentally ill woman in the Bronx last fall. The police unions are assembling to present a united front against the prosecution of officers they say are placed in a no-win situation when confronted with a mentally ill subject.

“It’s all put on one cop’s back in that call for service,” Kelly said.

An emblem of the San Jose Police Officers’ Association photographed at the union’s headquarters during a news conference on Nov. 23, 2016.

Besides lamenting the indictment, Kelly said the unions –also including those from San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, among others — “want to pivot this into a good thing for the community and the mentally ill” by lobbying for federal assistance.

The coalition calls for the formation of multi-disciplinary response teams that pair officers and mental-health clinicians who are on-call for serious police calls that involve a mentally ill person. Santa Clara County is currently pilot testing two such teams, one in San Jose and one in South County.

The aim for the Psychiatric Emergency Response Team is to give officers another avenue to respond to a crisis other than a standard police response, which can quickly prove ineffective in cases where a person being contacted is unable to recognize or understand officer commands.

But the two teams are far outpaced by demand in a county of 1.9 million residents, which is why Toni Tullys, director of Behavioral Health Services for the Santa Clara Valley Health and Hospital System, welcomes the idea of more funding and resources for the effort.

“Dedicated and additional funding for these teams, and the education and training needed to implement the program, would mean more police officers recognizing a person experiencing a mental health crisis, understanding what is taking place, and being able to better respond,” Tullys said in a statement.

Jim and Vicki Showman, whose daughter Diana was shot and killed by San Jose police in 2014, said federal legislative support would be a promising sign that the often violent intersection of police and the mentally ill is a national priority. Diana Showman, who was biploar, approached officers on Blossom Hill Road with a cordless drill painted black after boasting of having an Uzi in a 911 call she made herself.

“While we are sensitive to the need to reduce government spending, this has become a necessary expense,” the Showmans said in a statement. “The public has become more and more distrustful of police, and less-than-lethal approaches … with people in crisis would go a long way toward building and restoring trust in law enforcement.”

They added: “On a practical level, we believe that we’ll see fewer tragedies when calling for help from the police.”

In what is likely its most challenging proposal, the coalition of police groups is calling for federal legislation to selectively override medical privacy restrictions so that officers can know if a person they’re called out to contact has recently had a psychiatric hold so they can respond accordingly.

A more familiar proposal in the unions’ legislative agenda is creating a national standard curriculum for crisis-intervention training, which schools officers in areas like de-escalation techniques, having baseline knowledge of how people act under the influence of different narcotics, and discerning between a person who is maliciously angry and violent and one who is in a mental-health crisis.

CIT training is mandatory in the San Jose Police Department, and the instruction is being disseminated throughout the force, though not as quickly as desired due to understaffing.

“We don’t have enough time to get guys off the street for training,” Kelly said. “But even in a perfect world, where everyone gets CIT, does it fix everything? Absolutely not. We have to have all the other stuff.”

San Jose Police Chief Eddie Garcia said there is a need for more services for the affected population to defuse tensions before police have to get involved.

“Having that funding is imperative. Police cannot be the only option, the burden cannot simply fall on them,” he said. “It’s a problem that’s coming to light, but it has also been a problem for as long as officers have been patrolling.”

By Robert Salonga | | Bay Area News Group.