SAPD response to mental health crisis criticized by former officer

Three San Antonio police officers charged with murder in death of Melissa Perez.

Update:

San Antonio Police Department’s public information officer confirms the Mental Health Unit was not called to Melissa Perez’s apartment on Friday, June 23rd.

The Mental Health Unit was formed in 2009 with two officers and a sergeant.

According to SAPD’s PIO “The unit’s goal is to forge partnerships with mental health consumers, their families, and other mental health agencies to provide better support to residents facing crisis situations. Specially trained Mental Health Officers are deployed to respond to individuals experiencing mental health disorders, ensuring their needs are assessed and addressed with utmost effectiveness and compassion. These efforts have gained recognition on a national and international level, establishing a national model for other police agencies to implement.”

As of 2023, the Mental Health Unit includes 20 sworn members including two sergeants, two detectives, and 16 police officers. They work alongside three clinicians.

All of the officers in the unit have received Crisis Intervention Training, which includes mental health and de-escalation training.

Some of the members get additional peer support and critical incident stress management and suicide prevention program training.

In 2022, the unit responded to 5,201 calls. So far in 2023, they have responded to 1,986 calls.

Original:

Days after Melissa Perez was killed in her apartment, questions still remain about San Antonio Police Department’s response.

KSAT Investigates found all three of those officers had recently completed the training to deal with someone experiencing a mental health crisis.

“Looking at that video, knowing all three of those officers have had de-escalation training this year and have had mental health training this year -- would you say, based on what you saw in that video, that that training was followed?” KSAT Investigates reporter Leigh Waldman asked former SAPD officer Joe Smarro.

“Absolutely not,” Smarro answered.

“Had they followed what they were trained to do just this year, would Melissa Perez be alive?” Waldman asked.

“My opinion is, yes, Melissa Perez would still be alive,” Smarro said.

For years the San Antonio Police Department has been considered the gold standard for mental health, even getting recognition under former President Barack Obama’s administration.

Now Joe Smarro, who worked in the mental health unit for over a decade says the failures are clear.

“The mental health unit ideally should be responding to the live calls happening in the moment, just like that call,” he said referring to what happened on Old Pearsall Rd with 46-year-old Perez.

When he left the department in 2020, Smarro says the unit had a dozen or so people in it.

But the mental health unit didn’t respond to calls 24 hours a day.

“I’ve heard this from patrol when I was there is, ‘Why would we call you guys? You’re never available,’” he said.

KSAT asked SAPD Monday if the mental health unit was called that past Friday to Perez’s apartment. As of the publishing of this story, they haven’t given us an answer.

Even when the unit is called, is the response sufficient?

Last month, 22-year-old Bryan Spangrud was shot by an SAPD officer.

Prior to that, the mental health unit was called because Spangrud was screaming in his backyard.

The unit didn’t arrive before Spangrud was shot after pointing a rifle at officers.

“The rumors on patrol are still that, like, ‘Mental health is never available, that ‘We’re not going to call them. We’re just going to do it ourselves,’” Smarro said.

Smarro says 99% of the time, everyone walks away unharmed.

In the case of Spangrud and Perez, they did not.

The attorney representing Perez’s family questions why.

“We know that they knew that she was suffering from an acute mental crisis. And frankly, you don’t have to be a doctor just looking at the body cam footage. You can tell that she’s not herself,” Dan Packard said.

KSAT Investigates pulled the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement records for the three officers charged in Perez’s murder. All three completed de-escalation and mental health training within the last four months.

On Monday, a request was sent to San Antonio Police to get information on how many people make up its mental health unit as of today and how many calls they’re responding to.

As of the time of this article’s publishing, there has not been a response from SAPD.


About the Authors

Leigh Waldman is an investigative reporter at KSAT 12. She joined the station in 2021. Leigh comes to San Antonio from the Midwest after spending time at a station in Omaha, NE. After two winters there, she knew it was time to come home to Texas. When Leigh is not at work, she enjoys eating, playing with her dogs and spending time with family.

Dale Keller is senior news photographer at KSAT-12.

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