The Palo Alto Police Department will soon become the first in Santa Clara County to pair an officer and a mental health professional on the streets in an attempt to bring mental health services to persons in need and keep them out of jail.
Pending state review and approval early this year, the trained team of a police officer and a county behavioral-health-services clinician would travel together to mental health crisis calls to evaluate the situations and coordinate services for the person in need, said Toni Tullys, director of Santa Clara County Behavioral Health Services.
The new Psychological Emergency Response Team, or PERT, will ramp up for three months and then pilot its services for three months, she said. If successful, the program could roll out to other law enforcement agencies throughout the county. The program has worked elsewhere in the state: Police and county behavioral-health professionals are hoping it will keep people from ending up in jail unnecessarily.
Last year, police in Palo Alto put more people in 72-hour psychiatric holds than in any year of the past decade: 243 people, up from 239 in 2015. Between Jan. 1, 2006, and Dec. 27, 2015, officers placed 1,760 people in the holds, an average of 176 people per year, according to department records.
Although most Palo Alto police officers receive crisis-intervention training in addition to a state-mandated course, mental health professionals say there's a greater need for crisis teams that include a mental health professional. Police respond to many calls involving mental health issues, beyond those that end in the 72-hour or so-called "5150" holds, police spokesman Lt. Zach Perron said. Many calls have a mental health aspect that isn't discovered until after the officer arrives, he added.
Some situations with mentally ill persons become deadly. On Dec. 25, 2015, officers fatally shot William Raff, a man with schizophrenia who charged at them carrying a table knife in downtown Palo Alto. The three officers involved were exonerated, but the tragedy highlighted the difficult situations that officers face.
A trained clinician could help the situation by accessing the person's history and assessing the situation, Tullys said. The mental health professional can find out if the person has had treatment in the past or has run out of medication, which might be contributing to the crisis -- information that police cannot access because officers cannot search medical records.
Perron said that pairing the officer with a county clinician is also cost-effective. If the person has committed a crime and is booked into county jail, the licensed clinician can speak with jail booking and psychology staff to line up needed services.
"Otherwise, the person would have to be re-diagnosed. They may not be forthright about the medications they are taking. This program helps them get the treatment they need. This is what we need to do to provide the best service," he said.
The pilot program will not cost the department any money; it will be funded through California's Proposition 63, the Mental Health Services Act. The project will focus on persons ages 18 to 25, but the team can also respond to calls involving people outside of that age bracket, he said.
A similar PERT team in San Mateo County launched in March 2015. Jason Albertson, a licensed clinical social worker with San Mateo County's Behavioral Health and Recovery Services, said last year that the program has prevented potential tragedies. He and San Mateo County Det. Jim Coffman comprise the team.
When they arrived at a home where a man was having a crisis, he said by way of example, they were able to remove realistic-looking toy guns from the home.
"If an officer had come to that door and (the man) had displayed something that looks realistic, he could have been shot," Albertson said.
Albertson can spend three to four hours with the person in distress, helping them to develop a care plan -- medication renewals, finding a treatment program or sober housing -- that will hopefully prevent further police contact or escalating crises.
"That's not something police officers are trained to do or will have the time to do," Albertson said.
Tullys said the county was inspired by a successful PERT program in San Diego County, which launched in 1995. There, law enforcement has seen a steady rise in mental health calls for service. Between 2008 and 2014 San Diego County saw a 62.3 percent increase in dispatch calls for mental health-related cases, according to a San Diego County Board of Supervisors staff report. Without the teams, officers would be handling these cases in addition to their regular criminal case loads. San Diego now has PERT teams throughout the county.