Published on: Tuesday, October 20, 2020

In what will be among the largest and boldest urban police reform experiment in decades, San Francisco is creating and preparing to deploy teams of professionals from the fire and health departments — not police — to respond to most calls for people in a psychiatric, behavioral or substance abuse crisis (article available here).

Instead of police, these types of crisis calls will mostly be handled by new unarmed mobile teams comprised of paramedics, mental health professionals and peer support counselors starting next month. Removing police from most nonviolent psychiatric and behavioral crisis calls is no small shift: they can account for a quarter or more of all police calls for service. If you add in 911 calls for issues or complaints surrounding homelessness, the numbers shoot even higher, police data show.

San Francisco's new, unarmed, non-police teams are scheduled, at first, to take over the police calls for code 800 – a broad, catch-all category the police describe as a "report of a mentally disturbed person." According to SFPD data, police received nearly 17,000 of those code 800s last year and nearly 22,000 overall from persons in mental or behavioral crisis.

Surveys show that nearly a quarter of fatal police encounters followed calls about "disruptive behavior" directly tied to a person's mental illness and/or substance abuse disorder. Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics surveys show that 64% of those in jail and more than half of all prison inmates have a mental health problem, many of them undiagnosed.