sfpd_cityhall.jpgThe San Francisco Police Commission voted Wednesday night to set up a new team to handle crisis situations involving mentally ill suspects.

The seven-member commission voted unanimously to create a crisis intervention team within the Police Department, which has dealt with two shootings of mentally ill suspects by officers in the past two months.

The team, which will follow a model set up by the Memphis Police Department in the 1980s, would be deployed as first responders or co-responders to mental health calls, Commissioner Angela Chan said.

“This is a large reform we’re engaging in tonight,” Chan said.

Commissioner Jim Hammer said the goal of the change is to have “officers go home to their families at night, and for the mentally ill to have less force used on them.”

Retired police Major Sam Cochran and Dr. Randy Dupont, the creators of the Memphis model, spoke at Wednesday night’s meeting and outlined how it works.

“It’s not a law enforcement program … it’s a community program” that requires partnership between police, city agencies and mental health advocates, Cochran said.

Dupont said the program is already in place in about 1,500 cities around the U.S., including Chicago, Las Vegas and Orlando, and has led to dramatic reductions in arrests and violence in cases involving the mentally ill.

Members of the crisis intervention team would receive 40 hours of training on mental health issues, including interaction with mentally ill patients and lessons on identifying symptoms of mental illness and developing verbal de-escalation skills, Cochran said.

The Police Department already has 904 officers who have completed at least 40 hours of similar training under a program that started in 2001, but that program was downsized last year due to budget issues, said police Inspector Kelly Dunn, who is also the department’s psychiatric liaison.

Several other invited guests, from mental health advocates to police union representatives, also spoke at Wednesday night’s meeting in what Commission President Thomas Mazzucco said was “one of the best presentations we’ve ever had.”

“It’s an incredible model, and seems like the right thing to do,” Mazzuco said.

Interim Police Chief Jeff Godown also approved of the plan, saying the de-escalation tactics emphasized in the program could even “be morphed into standard procedure.”

The use of force against mentally ill suspects has been a hot topic in San Francisco recently due to two officer-involved shootings that occurred within a week of each other in December and January.

On Dec. 29, Vinh Bui, 46, was fatally shot by officers in the city’s Portola neighborhood after he allegedly stabbed a 15-year-old girl, according to police.

Bui, who had at least a 10-year history of mental illness, was shot after moving toward officers with a knife or scalpel, police said.

On Jan. 4, a man in a wheelchair was shot by officers in the South of Market neighborhood after allegedly stabbing an officer with a knife.

The man, Randal Phillip Dunklin, had allegedly been vandalizing parking meters and cars outside a Department of Public Health behavioral health services building prior to the officers’ arrival.

Dunklin survived the shooting and has a court case pending.

Before approving of the resolution on Wednesday night, the commission decided to give Godown and the Police Department 30 days to suggest changes to the policy before finalizing it.

In the coming weeks, the commission is expected to select up to three potential nominees to replace Godown, who is serving as interim chief after former Chief George Gascon became district attorney last month.

The commission is also expected to return to the issue of the use of Tasers by officers.
Last year, the commission rejected the use of the devices, but the new makeup of the commission this year could favor adding them.

Gascon has said that in some of the recent officer-involved shootings of suspects with mental health histories, Tasers could have prevented serious injury or death.

Dan McMenamin, Bay City News

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