Activists want police out of most responses in proposed mental health pilot program

Pilot program in FY22 budget would use blended team of paramedics, clinicians, and SAPD officers responding to mental health calls

SAN ANTONIO – As the City of San Antonio prepares to try a new approach to handling mental health calls that would put San Antonio police officers in a secondary role, activists are urging the city to go even further and remove them from most of those responses entirely.

As part of the FY 2022 budget proposal, city staff have proposed a variety of changes to how the city handles various calls for service, including: animal calls, loud music complaints, and fireworks during New Year’s and July 4th. The diversion of some of these calls to other city departments is meant to remove or reduce police presence in situations where they may not be needed.

One of the biggest changes, though, is the inclusion of a pilot program expected to begin in the spring that would send a “multidisciplinary response team” to mental health calls out of the central substation. In an approach similar to Bexar County’s SMART Team, the city pilot program team would consist of a paramedic, a clinician, and an SAPD officer.

Though the officer’s role in the city’s plan is already a secondary one, mostly to secure the scene while health professionals take the lead dealing with the person undergoing a mental health crisis, some groups don’t believe the officers should be there at all.

ACT 4 SA and 18 other state, local, and national groups signed an open letter to city leaders, urging them to adopt a crisis response model that “only consists of trained and experienced medical and mental health specialists who serve as the primary responders to calls involving an individual in crisis.”

The simple presence of an officer can escalate a situation for someone,” ACT 4 SA’s leader, Ananda Tomas, told KSAT.

Tomas says she isn’t trying to completely remove police from the equation, but she doesn’t believe they need to be part of the core response team.

We do understand that there are some calls that will require law enforcement there, right? Somebody is waving around a gun or something like that. But law enforcement should not respond to every call, in general,” Tomas said.

Tomas said she would like to see a program more akin to the much-cited CAHOOTS program out of Eugene, Oregon, which does not include police officers as part of its response teams.

Lay out a clear protocol on when dispatch needs to involve law enforcement and when they don’t, or even, you know, a third tree, which is maybe we need to have a law enforcement stand back, right?” Tomas suggested. “Wait down the street if the escalation tactics of your clinician, your advocate, don’t work, then they can call them in and they can respond quickly. But the the main point is that law enforcement should not be part of the core team and respond to every single call.”

City Manager Erik Walsh said the city’s proposed pilot program is based off a report by the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute, which the city retained to find improvements it could make to San Antonio’s first response system.

“And some of the examples that Meadows gave us from other cities is that this team approach of a police officer, a mental health clinician, and a paramedic are best suited to deal with whatever the situation is. So, I mean, we think the police department’s a critical piece of that, maybe not the primary piece,” Walsh told KSAT.

Walsh said he is not in favor of sending a team to a 911 call without a law enforcement element.

“There are too many cases where those things can turn violent, and we’re not interested in anybody in that position. I’m not interested in putting anybody in that position,” Walsh said.

Ultimately, though, it’s city council members who will make the final call on policy, and Tomas says her group and its allies have spoken with a majority of the city council members’ offices.

One such council member is District 1 Councilman Mario Bravo, whose district includes part of the central substation area where the program would be based. Bravo told KSAT he planned to bring the issue up Wednesday when the council deliberates possible changes to the budget ahead of a final vote on Thursday.

“At the end of the day, I want the response to fit the situation,” Bravo said. “And so if there’s an opportunity to send mental health professionals out without law enforcement, when there’s no dangerous situation -- when no law enforcement is needed -- then I’d like to be able to do that.”

A spokesman for District 5 Councilwoman Teri Castillo, whose district also includes part of the central substation area, texted KSAT a statement, as well.

“The people of San Antonio deserve both modern and compassionate approaches to mental health. This is why we must act responsibly with our public money by investing in solutions like the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets model (CAHOOTs),” the statement reads. “The CAHOOTs model has demonstrated deescalation and safety measures that do not require law enforcement in every interaction they have by relying on a trauma informed approach. As a city, we should replicate policies that work.”


About the Authors:

Garrett Brnger is a reporter with KSAT 12.