SAN ANTONIO – As part of an effort to consider alternative responses to some 911 calls, San Antonio police could end up taking a supporting role in some calls dealing with mental health, domestic violence, and homelessness.
City staff presented the Public Safety Committee with an update of the police services review that began last year in response to numerous protests and calls to change policing in San Antonio. A central portion of the review has revolved around how else the city could respond to some calls for service, beyond simply sending sworn police officers.
The process has included surveys, a study of police calls for service, and numerous meetings with stakeholders, the community, and police officers. Though city staff told the committee they haven’t finalized their recommendations yet -- those will be presented in August -- they did include one idea they’re considering.
Mental health, domestic violence, and homelessness were all part of the review from the beginning, and Assistant City Manager Colleen Bridger told the committee they were considering a “team approach” as the framework to handle these types of calls.
That could mean using a variety of people to respond to the calls, whether a mental health professional -- on site or over the phone; advocates who are trained to “triage” the most critical needs people have for family violence, mental health, or housing; EMS personnel; and police.
The focus in these cases would be to de-escalate situations and provide a “warm handoff” to services that can maintain sustained support.
District 10 Councilman Clayton Perry questioned the need for the approach on mental health calls, raising concerns about the cost that would come with the additional resources, as well as possible danger if a call escalated and police weren’t there. He also asked whether SAPD officers were not trained well enough to handle mental health calls already.
Bridger said SAPD officers are “exceedingly well-trained” in responding to mental health calls compared to other departments. However, she said, “there is strong evidence that shows that clinicians who have had, you know, tens of years of training and experience, are more qualified to deal with the mental health crisis in the field and then appropriately connect these individuals to the wraparound services that they need.”
“This allows the most qualified people to connect individuals who have problems to those longer term services,” Bridger said. “So this is this is not at all a criticism of the police. They do a really great job with what they have.”
She added that this approach would only be for mental health calls when there’s not a weapon involved.
“So if somebody calls about somebody brandishing a firearm or something like that, the police would be the first responders on scene,” Bridger said. “And we still think the police will be the first responders to secure the site and make sure that nobody will get hurt, just like they do with some EMS calls, but then release it to the experts who can take it from there.”
City staff are expected to develop recommendations for changes to policing in the city, including what calls what might not warrant a sworn officer responding, through July. Staff will present their recommendations to the Public Safety Committee in early August and make final recommendations as part of the budget on Aug. 12.
The changes will be part of budget discussions. A final vote on the FY 2022 budget is expected on Sept. 16.