While it has long been the responsibility of law enforcement to handle situations involving people under the influence of drugs, which often has a violent outcome, the city of San Francisco is taking a more progressive approach to crisis incidents by employing a team of mental-health professionals to accompany police on these types of emergency calls.
Earlier last week, city officials announced the formation of a new five-member mental heath squad called the Crisis Intervention Specialists team, which will be deployed whenever police get called to deal with people who may be suffering from some kind of mental episode or under the influence of mind-altering substances.
The goal of the program, according to Mayor Ed Lee, is to allow police to deal with criminal issues, while putting experts in the metal health field in charge of deescalating incidents for which most officers are not fully trained.
“We are undergoing one of the biggest reform efforts in the history of this department,” Lee said, addressing a group of cadets at a police academy class on Tuesday. “One of the principles of our police reform, one that I greatly value, is the principle of the sanctity of life.”
The crisis squad, which will include clinical psychologists and social workers, is not an entirely new concept, but it is one most law-enforcement agencies all over the country have failed to recognize as an essential part of protecting and serving the public.
Just last week, a 21-year-old Baltimore man ended up being beaten to death by a couple of police officers responding to a 911 call. Tawon Boyd, who was suffering from an unexplained mental breakdown, told officers that his girlfriend had drugged him and planted surveillance devices all over his house—asking them several times to go inside his home and get to the bottom of the situation.
Reports indicate that is when the two officers decided that Boyd was “under the influence of narcotics” and attempted to restrain him so that emergency personal could transport him to a hospital for an assessment. But during the struggle, Boyd accidentally scratched one of the officers, which prompted the cop to punch the man in the face several times. Boyd later died in an intensive care unit from those injuries.
It is those types of situations that the Crisis Intervention Specialists team will be there to prevent. San Francisco interim Police Chief Toney Chaplin said the new program would give officers “additional tools” when dealing with the mentally ill and work to prevent violent situations from unfolding where that level of force is not necessary.
A similar program has been underway in Los Angeles for years. Mark Gale, the criminal justice chairman for the Los Angeles County Council of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, recently told the New York Times that the addition a mental health crisis team to the police force has saved lives.
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