By Martin Halloran
Policing San Francisco, like most US cities, has become increasingly difficult. Homeless people on our streets have grown exponentially. District Attorney George Gascon’s Prop 47 decriminalization of illegal narcotics has led to more addicts self-medicating. And helpless individuals who suffer from medical and mental health issues are not getting the help they need.
When people are suffering from mental health issues and living on the streets with no housing, easy access to illegal narcotics and alcohol and have no support from government or family, then you end up with encounters with law enforcement, some of which do not end well.
I do not know any police officer who is a licensed psychiatrist or psychologist, although there might be one or two. Despite that law enforcement is being forced, time and time again, to deal with those who need and deserve professional care. Many of these people have been abandoned by their families and the government who should be taking responsibility for their well-being.
When these people find themselves in crisis, they lash out at the community that abandoned them. When that happens who gets called to deal with the problem? Why the cops, of course.
Officers respond and do what they can despite having no information about the history of the troubled individual. Usually it’s a brief and stressful interaction. If the person directs his or her anger, frustration, and hostility at the closest target, which is often the police, responding officers must react. We dread it when we are forced to take harsh action, but we are not sacrificial lambs and we should not pay with our lives for the failures of our society that has an obligation to care for the mentally ill.
Most law enforcement agencies have introduced Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) for their officers. The San Francisco PD has done that along with de-escalation training for officers on the front lines. This training is certainly beneficial, but 40-hours of classroom instruction does not equate to an officer having the skills, knowledge, and experience of a licensed psychiatrist or psychologist.
Last week, a mentally disturbed person entered the parking lot of one of our stations after he saw officers walk out the back door. This individual advanced on the officers with a knife in hand and screamed, “I’m ready to go! Take me!” The officers showed a tremendous restraint. They called for back-up. Numerous officers responded all using less lethal force to subdue this individual.
Ironically, two years earlier, an almost identical incident happened at the same station. Another disturbed individual waited until officers walked into the parking lot. Once the cops were out of the building the man approached the officers and pointed a gun at them. The officers had no choice but to use deadly force. A note was discovered later on the suspect expressing his sorrow that he had to put the officers through this ordeal. Sadly, the man wanted to end his own life, but he didn’t have the courage to do it by his own hand. The gun, it turns out, was a replica.
The City of San Francisco, the State of California, and those responsible for their family members’ well-being need to step up. When all else fails and that call comes in to 911, you can’t blame the officers if there is a tragic outcome.
In October 2015, Laura’s Law was passed to deal with those mentally ill individuals who need to be controlled in a secure environment. But the law was watered down by one of our local politicians to the point where it is almost useless.
In October 2016, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee announced a plan to have mental health professionals help police officers resolve conflicts with suspects to avoid escalation of force by the police. I was at that press conference and fully supported the plan. To date, I have not seen it in action out in the field where it is desperately needed.
Now more than ever, we are being forced to deal with individuals who are in need of medical and mental health services. Often they are begging for help and direction. We do everything we can, but we are not trained for this work. If we are placed in situations where force must be used on a person who is suffering emotionally it takes a terrible toll on everyone involved including the officer. We need to provide more resources for our mental health professionals who have the skills and experience to help the mentally ill. A law enforcement solution often can only make a tragic situation worse.
Martin Halloran is the president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association.