San Antonio activists want parallel pilot programs for mental health responses - with, and without police

As San Antonio preps new mental health team, Act 4 SA says ARPA money could fund a second program using only civilians

SAN ANTONIO – Having failed to keep police out of a new mental health response team the City of San Antonio will try out beginning next spring, activists want the city to at least give a civilian-centric model a try, too.

The City of San Antonio is already working on developing a three-member “Multidisciplinary Response Team” (MDRT), which will begin responding to mental health calls in the Central Substation’s service area beginning in the spring of 2022. The pilot program is part of a series of changes to how the city handles certain 911 calls, which the city council adopted as part of the FY 2022 budget.

The MDRT will be comprised of a mental health clinician, a paramedic, and a police officer. Police Chief William McManus says the officer’s level of involvement will depend on the circumstances of the call.

“If there’s a call where violence is imminent, or violence has already occurred, you know, the police are going to take that lead,” McManus said. “We don’t want anybody getting hurt. We don’t want any clinicians, you know, walking into that where it’s a violent situation. Our goal is to simply keep everybody safe.”

However, Act 4 SA Executive Director Ananda Tomas organized several people to speak Tuesday at the Public Safety Committee meeting and advocate for a mental health response with no police component at all - something she calls an “alternative responder model.”

According to the written plan Tomas provided to committee members, an unarmed “Civilian Response Team” would consist of a medic and mental or behavioral health specialist. A peer specialist - someone with their own experience with mental health, substance abuse, or domestic violence - would also be part of the emergency response.

According to the proposal, $2 million in federal dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act could fund three teams to be deployed across the city for lower-priority calls that don’t include someone who is an imminent threat to themself or others.

During the the FY 2022 budget discussions, Act 4 SA was part of a coalition of organizations that pushed for the city to adopt a civilian-centered response model instead of the MDRT idea. Now that the MDRT idea is going ahead, though, Tomas said a smaller coalition is pushing for the civilian model to be run simultaneously as the MDRT.

“So that way we can compare the two programs, their effectiveness, their evaluations. All of that, just like you would do with any science experiment. You have to run two variables against one another.”

Tomas said the civilian-only response team could still call police if there ends up being a weapon involved or the person starts threatening themselves or others.

District 2 Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez expressed support for the idea during the Tuesday committee meeting, but Deputy City Manager Maria Villagomez said city staff are not recommending removing law enforcement from the calls because of safety concerns.

However, Villagomez suggested they could consider that approach after they see how the MDRT approach, using police officers, works first.

“We want to go through this pilot program, gather the data, be able to make an analysis of the outcomes of those calls and then make a recommendation,” she told KSAT. “If there’s a different way that we should be handling those calls, we’re open to it. We just don’t feel that it’s safe at this point.”

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About the Authors:

Garrett Brnger is a reporter with KSAT 12.

Luis Cienfuegos is a photographer at KSAT 12.