SAN ANTONIO – The San Antonio Police Department may be poised for a record swelling of its ranks, but San Antonio City Council members appear more focused on how quickly the city can ramp up a promising, multi-disciplinary approach to mental health calls.
The city’s proposed budget for the 2024 fiscal year includes 100 new patrol officer positions and five additional instructors at the police academy to help push more officers through. It’s part of a five-year push to beef up the patrol division and provide officers more time for “proactive” policing instead of racing from call to call.
Combined with some existing and upcoming mid-year budget adjustments, SAPD would start FY 2024 with 117 more uniform positions than the council initially approved for the current year. It would be the largest year-over-year increase of police officers going back to at least the beginning of the millennium.
However, during a budget work session Wednesday that focused on police, fire, and court budgets, San Antonio City Council members spent more time discussing the department’s plans for responding to mental health calls, especially SA Core.
“I think almost every single person has talked about this. But if you are, if you haven’t heard it loudly, our constituents are calling us and telling us the impact that SA Core is having,” said District 1 Councilwoman Sukh Kaur.
The program uses a three-member team composed of a police officer, firefighter, and mental health clinician to respond to mental health calls. In the first year, only six of the 1,465 calls for service to which the team responded ended with arrests.
In May, the previous council moved to expand SA Core by two additional teams that should come online in January. City staff say they are considering recommending even more teams for FY 2025.
While the current team only operates in the downtown area and near West Side, city staff say three teams will be enough to expand coverage around the city -- if not around the clock. Like the existing team, the two new SA Core teams would have two shifts covering 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.
SAPD Deputy Chief Karen Falks told council members that those hours were picked because that’s when mental health calls tend to happen.
However, SAPD says members of its Mental Health Unit are also available to support patrol officers, whether on duty or on call.
The current SA Core team also screens out calls involving weapons and people being physically aggressive.
Though council members avoided discussing it in detail, the June 23 death of Melissa Perez seemed to hang over Wednesday’s budget discussion.
Perez, 46, was shot and killed by San Antonio Police officers as she was presumed to be experiencing a mental episode. SAPD has said its Mental Health Unit was not called out to the scene before the shooting, which happened at about 2 a.m. on a Friday.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg referenced “the incident this summer” as a reason council members were concerned with the availability of SA Core, which Kaur later echoed.
“Given the incident that the mayor brought up that happened earlier this summer, it’d really be nice to see a number of what would it take to get this service to be 24 hours. And how much -- how much additionally would we need to allocate to that?” the District 1 councilwoman said.
City Attorney Andy Segovia interjected to ask council members to refrain from talking about the specifics.
“If I may clarify, councilwoman, again, the reference to the incident, I want to make it very clear there was no gap, and there was mental health services available for that incident,” Segovia said. “And if we could limit the discussion to the general resources available and not talk about that, I’d appreciate it.”
Deputy City Manager Maria Villagomez also told council members that while the expanded SA Core program could not handle every mental health call, the city is “being more targeted on how we address mental health calls.
“For example, with the Good Neighbor program, as we analyze those particular addresses that we get 911 calls over and over again, our approach is a proactive approach, to go to those homes and be able to reduce the number of 911 calls, but more importantly, connecting those individuals to services.”
SAPD says it already started advanced mental health training in March to help officers identify people with mental health issues and “enhance” their interactions with people in crisis. The department expects it will take three years to get everyone in the department.