Opinion: Saving lives by sending the right people to crises | January 14, 2022 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - January 14, 2022

Opinion: Saving lives by sending the right people to crises

by Joe Simitian and Tom DuBois

Six years ago, William Raff died after a tragic encounter with police on Christmas night. When Palo Alto police officers responding to a 911 call from the 31-year-old mentally ill man arrived, they were immediately attacked with what was later discovered to be a butter knife.

Raff's death underscores the sad reality that too often, a call for help ends in tragedy when police respond to find a person in a mental health crisis holding a weapon. The Raff case — and others like it — raises a question: When is it appropriate to dispatch only armed police officers to mental health emergencies — and when is it not?

Of late, this question has been top of mind for city leaders in Palo Alto. Motivated by national events over the last two years, the City Council and Police Department spent time last summer reviewing police procedures, use of force, and alternative models to dispatching armed officers to certain types of mental health crisis calls.

It's an issue the county of Santa Clara has been working to address for some time. Two years ago, the county launched its Psychiatric Emergency Response Team (PERT), a crisis intervention model which pairs a licensed mental health clinician with a law enforcement officer to respond to calls involving people in acute mental health crises. The program has proven to be an effective tool for our county Sheriff's Department, and we're delighted to say the Palo Alto Police Department is the second law enforcement agency (and first city) in the county to launch a PERT team.

Southern California — where the program was first implemented — has already demonstrated that PERT works. It's no surprise. We ask law enforcement to take on a lot of our community's challenges. Some of these challenges, however, are better met by folks whose training is in the behavioral health arena.

The public benefits from this approach because responders will be appropriately trained mental health specialists. Law enforcement benefits because officers aren't put in situations beyond the scope of their training and expertise.

The Palo Alto PERT team (a police officer and a mental health clinician) work in tandem on cases involving a mental health crisis, combining their unique skill sets, training and expertise to troubleshoot situations rife with uncertainty. The clinician has access to the county mental health system, which means they'll be able to, for example, determine if the individual experiencing a mental health crisis has been seen before.

If so, the clinician can look up information about the individual's clinical diagnosis, their treating physician, and level of medication they've been prescribed — information law enforcement wouldn't otherwise have at their disposal. Providing the best care for a peaceful resolution begins with understanding the individual in crisis, with the added benefit of having an officer there as a safety measure.

The goal, of course, is not to issue mental health "holds"; it's to see how many community members we can safely and appropriately divert from the system. We want to keep people out of the hospital and out of jail, if possible. We want to look for opportunities to de-escalate and identify alternatives and resources before considering something potentially more restrictive.

When they're not responding to calls, PERT staff also reach out to folks who are homeless because, unfortunately, a significant proportion of our unhoused population do have mental health conditions and don't always get the help they need when a uniformed police officer shows up.

A clinician and officer — working in plainclothes — walk through parking garages, down alleyways and through downtown and other areas of the city where we know unhoused members of our community are found and get to know them, build rapport with them and try to make inroads in a way that a uniformed officer might not be able to do.

We need to be smart about who we send out to deal with people in crisis. If there's a bank robbery in progress, we certainly wouldn't send a social worker. Similarly, if a person is having a mental health episode, it may not make sense to send only an armed officer who may not have the training and depth of expertise to navigate a mental health crisis.

Our local police officers can handle a lot of things, but they're not social workers or mental health specialists.

Simply put, there have been too many avoidable tragedies here in our city, our county and across the country. Having the appropriate resources available, and investing in de-escalation efforts when there's a crisis, is really the key to preventing future tragedies — and getting a vulnerable population the help it deserves.

Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian serves as chair of the county's Health and Hospital Committee. Palo Alto City Council member Tom DuBois served as mayor in 2021. Email them at [email protected] and [email protected]


Posted by I can't breathe pollution
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 14, 2022 at 7:37 am

I can't breathe pollution is a registered user.

This seems like window dressing. The problem with the police department in Palo Alto is there's no oversight. When there's a complaint, its handled by....the Palo Alto police department! When an officer does something obviously bad, he's reviewed by...other Palo Alto police!

We need to quit vilifying failed police and just fire them. It's hard to control people I can tell you. Give them a break and just fire them.

Posted by Citizen
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 14, 2022 at 10:45 am

Citizen is a registered user.

Public safety for the public is paramount, rather than the safety of those causing disturbances.

Posted by Barron Park Denizen
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 14, 2022 at 12:13 pm

Barron Park Denizen is a registered user.

The new PERT team will likely do some good, and will look forward to a report on their performance and effectiveness. But this article has issues:

1. Many of the PAPD have built relationships with the homeless and know them by name. The former Police Department SAT team, which unfortunately could no longer be funded, in particular had the assignment of helping the homeless find assistance and resources, with some success.
2. In regard to the tragic William Raff case on Christmas 2015, after lengthy investigation the County District Attorney's found that the deceased sought his own demise via attacking the officers. Could a mental health professional have cooled off such a troubled person running at them with a knife in the dark?
3. And please, do not keep repeating that the weapon was "later discovered to be a butter knife." That was a statement made in the initial heat of the tragedy, and found not to be true. Please refer to the online Police Auditor's report covering 2015.

It appears that the two authors were not well served by their staff drafting this article.

Posted by NeilsonBuchanan
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 14, 2022 at 3:28 pm

NeilsonBuchanan is a registered user.

Thanks, Tom and Joe,

I understand the potential of this program and it can work well here. Thanks for launching it.

Posted by Paly02
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 14, 2022 at 4:57 pm

Paly02 is a registered user.

This program is an important first step in diverting mental health crises from the police and to qualified mental health workers. I look forward to hearing how it goes

Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 14, 2022 at 5:24 pm

Anonymous is a registered user.

Public Safety must take priority.
One may be sad for troubled persons, single mothers, unemployed, ex-felons, drug addicted, mentally challenged.
But there is a LOT of crime; read area police blotter columns in our newspapers! Transients, camps ARE a threat to the general public.
We are edging ever more towards San Francisco, wherein filthy and dangerous public streets, tent-blocked sidewalks, needles at transit stations threaten the public trying to go about their business, whether for work, school, leisure, tourism as emboldened criminal drug-addicted homeless attack the public without much worry of recourse. District Attorney Chesa Boudin charges the absolute minimum of cases; outrageous and recall effort underway.
For the sake of San Francisco, I hope the recall succeeds.
Ramshacke oversized vehicles parked endlessly on public streets or at edge of public parks such as Rengstorff Park in Mountain View are: unsanitary, illegal, dumping flows to SF Bay, untenable. Schoolchildren were threatened when Palo Alto helplessly permitted transients to inhabit the Cubberley Community Center parking lot for awhile.
Prove to us these individuals are not transients attracted here by your often misguided handouts and lax atmosphere.
Prove why we should cater tomthose who refuse to use services and abide by basic reasonable rules at the PA Opportunity Center and other suchngenerous taxpayer-paid efforts to assist those in crisis AND transients.
Prove to us where there have been mass layoffs nearby here, throwing people out of work.
Millions spent with little documentation; an ever-increase of the homeless industrial complex.
Individuals CAN increase their skills, literacy, avoid criminal acts, avoid illegal drugs. Hanging out in public is not acceptable.

Posted by nanhis
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jan 15, 2022 at 7:41 am

nanhis is a registered user.

This is a compassionate and sensible approach. It doesn’t solve all problems but it definitely is a huge step forward in the right direction. Thank you, Tom and Joe.

Posted by Kirsten Lakin
a resident of another community
on Jan 16, 2022 at 2:11 pm

Kirsten Lakin is a registered user.

Palo Alto could consider establishing a city-monitored homeless campground in one of its parks with outreach from PERT and various social services agencies including a food bank.

This is the civilized approach to addressing homelessness.

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