Police, fire, EMS, or mental health? SAPD considers 4th option for 911 callers

SAPD, city officials say there have been internal discussions of adding clinicians to 911 call center

SAN ANTONIO – Among the car crashes, falls, fires, and shootings that prompt San Antonians to dial 911 every day are thousands of less straight-forward calls.

In 2023, the San Antonio Police Department had 32,452 mental health 911 calls - a number that has been climbing for years. But top SAPD and City of San Antonio officials say they have been discussing adding “mental health” to the traditional police, fire, and emergency medical services options 911 callers get.

Those mental health calls could be routed to clinicians at the 911 call center who could then vet the calls and possibly avoid the need for police to respond physically to the scene.

“If we had a licensed clinician, or several clinicians assigned, not only would we have better training for those questions, we could also handle that call through a mental health component. Being we may not have to send a police officer,” SAPD Assistant Chief Karen Falks told KSAT. “We could handle it with that clinician, and then we could have services either sent that are strictly mental health, or we could get them connected to, say, Center for Health Care Services or something like that without even having to have a policeman sent to that call.”

“Many times these are calls that our officers probably don’t even need to be connected to,” she said.

SAPD Mental Health 911 Calls, displayed in a Feb. 20, 2024 Public Safety Committee presentation. (City of San Antonio)

The idea came up in a San Antonio City Council Public Safety Committee meeting Tuesday morning, when Committee Chairwoman Melissa Cabello Havrda (D6) asked about the possibility of asking 911 callers if they were phoning in about a mental health episode.

SAPD Chief William McManus told her it was a “clinician issue right now.”

“We’re having, I guess, challenges getting clinicians down there at the 911 call center,” McManus said. “So, as you work through that and get that resolved, you know, we’ll probably move in that direction.”

Falks later agreed that getting the clinicians, who she said would be hired through the Center for Health Care Services, was the “biggest hurdle.”

Deputy City Manager Maria Villagomez also confirmed during the committee meeting that adding clinicians to the 911 call center was something “we’re evaluating.”

“The idea is if somebody calls and needs assistance to be transferred to an individual who is a subject matter expert that perhaps can provide some assistance to that individual and perhaps not necessitate the need for us to send the SA CORE team or a police officer,” Villagomez told the committee.

SA CORE is the city’s multidisciplinary mental health response program, which council members have been eager to expand.

Three-member teams of SAPD officers, San Antonio Fire Department paramedics, and clinicians respond to certain mental health calls - though not calls with weapons or people being physically aggressive.

The city has already expanded the original pilot program to three teams covering the entire city for 16 hours of the day. By summer, the program is scheduled to be expanded to 24-hour coverage.

Villagomez said city staff would come back to the committee to present where the city stood on the SA CORE expansion, “and I think at that point, we can dive more into the details of what we have done.”

Doug Beach, executive director of the Greater San Antonio branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), was glad to hear the city and police were talking about adding a fourth option for 911 callers.

“Most of the cases, most of the calls that come in are for people and families just needing some assistance with a friend or family member who might be having a mental health, crisis, but not life-threatening,” Beach said.

But while SAPD and city officials talked about the idea in terms of potentially preventing further police involvement, Beach also saw the clinician call-taker’s role as helping gauge what type of help to send.

“That clinician will know what questions to ask to figure out what is the level of severity or whether this is a call that can be responded to by, hopefully SA CORE or hopefully the (SAPD Mental Health Unit),” he said.

Simply having a fourth option for mental health could help the caller “have a little more confidence” that the person to whom they’re connecting is ready to receive their call and see it as a mental health issue rather than a crime.

After the Melissa Perez shooting in June 2023, in which SAPD officers shot and killed a woman experiencing a mental health episode, Beach said NAMI had “many calls” from people who said they were reluctant to call the police because they weren’t sure what would happen.

“So I think that this is a step forward in terms of giving the public a little more assurance that if they make a mental health call or call and ask for mental health assistance, that, there’s a better chance of getting a better response,” Beach said. “But it very much has - this whole process...has been tainted with the idea that ‘if I call the police, there may not be a good outcome.’”

Falks sees the addition of a mental health option for 911 calls coming and is “hoping, probably within the year, we may see that.”

“Again, that will be up to city leadership and Chief McManus. But I, I realistically could see it probably in a year or so,” Falk said.

For Beach, it’s “the sooner, the better. It’s long overdue.”

About the Authors

Garrett Brnger is a reporter with KSAT 12.

Adam Barraza is a photojournalist at KSAT 12 and an El Paso native. He interned at KVIA, the local ABC affiliate, while still in high school. He then moved to San Antonio and, after earning a degree from San Antonio College and the University of the Incarnate Word, started working in news. He’s also a diehard Dodgers fan and an avid sneakerhead.

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