Responding to demands for police reform, Palo Alto on Friday launched a program that pairs an officer with a Santa Clara County mental health clinician on calls that involve an individual in a mental health crisis.
Known as the Psychiatric Emergency Response Team (PERT), the program is a partnership between the city and the county, which is providing a clinician from its Behavioral Health Services Department. Palo Alto has been working with the county to launch the program since last year, when the City Council endorsed it as part of a suite of police reforms in the Race and Equity Initiative that it launched in 2020. It is now the second in the county to launch a PERT program, following the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office.
"This long-anticipated program seeks to provide extra support and resources to help those in need of urgent assistance," Mayor Tom DuBois said in a statement. "Thanks to Santa Clara County leadership in shepherding this program through and the Palo Alto Police Department for the vision and commitment to see this team come to reality for the Palo Alto community."
The city's announcement notes that the program allows the two agencies — the Palo Alto Police Department and the county's Behavioral Health Services Department — to combine their unique resources, training and expertise to provide "the highest possible level of service to someone in mental health crisis before the situation worsens or requires hospitalization." They will operate out of an unmarked car and the officer will be in plain clothes rather than in a police uniform.
The team will be charged with responding to calls involving people in "acute mental crisis," according to the announcement. It will also be the city's point of contact with the unhoused population. Its responsibilities will include following on referrals from other police officers who encounter individuals who may benefit from PERT's services, according to the announcement. The team will also respond to calls and respond to any scene where a police supervisor believes their expertise would be of benefit.
Palo Alto Police Chief Robert Jonsen said he is thrilled about partnering with the county on the new program.
"I firmly believe programs like this are going to become part of all police agencies in the future, supporting people in acute mental health crises in getting the help they need," Jonsen said in a statement.
The team will be on duty between Sunday and Wednesday, typically from noon to 10 p.m., according to the city. Emergency situations that occur outside these hours will be addressed by on-duty personnel, much like they were before the program was created. Officers who respond to non-emergency situations when PERT is not on duty will be able to make referrals to the team so that it can follow-up during its regular working hours, according to Meghan Horrigan-Taylor, spokesperson for the city.
Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, who chairs the county's Health and Hospital Committee and whose district includes Palo Alto, said he believes the partnership will "reduce the potential for tragedy and help save lives." It's a model that the county should grow, he said.
"PERT provides an opportunity to de-escalate if it's at all possible and can help move folks toward mental health services rather than the criminal justice system."
In addition to the new PERT program, the city is exploring a partnership with Los Altos and Mountain View to create a program that is modeled after Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (Cahoots) in Eugene, Oregon, which relies on public health professionals rather than police officers to respond to certain emergency calls.
Sherri Terao, director of the Santa Clara County Behavioral Health Services Department, said the PERT teams "add an important element" to the department's crisis response team.
"Mental health crisis response services are a vital part of any mental health service system," Terao said. "We are proud to partner and expand the PERT program to the City of Palo Alto to help people access the services they need, when and where they are needed."
San Mateo County is testing a similar program in its four largest cities, including Redwood City. Announced earlier this week, the Community Wellness and Crisis Response Pilot Project pairs mental health professionals with police officers in their response to people experiencing mental or behavioral health crises.