San Mateo police officers and local advocates for people with disabilities spent Wednesday night discussing their experiences and ideas for change as part of a panel on policing and people with disabilities.

The panel discussion focused on finding better ways to help people with disabilities and people struggling during a mental health crisis, which has been an issue for police in the Bay Area and throughout America. The Wednesday discussion was Episode Seven of Real Talk San Mateo, where police and the public discuss different community issues. The panel featured officers Carlos Basurto, Steve Bennett and Michael Haobsh and members of the San Mateo County Commission on Disabilities, Florence Wong and Ligia Andrade Zúñiga. Other panel members included disability rights attorney Paula Tobler; Ben McMullan, Systems Change advocate with the Center for Independence of Individuals with Disabilities; disability advocate and caregiver Gloria Brown; and Inge Verschueren, AbilityPath program development manager.

The central theme focused on finding solutions to policing people with disabilities and mental health issues. Members of the panel said when police respond to a mental health crisis, they needed to be aware that everything they do can help or hurt. Tobler said police should have more training in dealing with mental health crises and people with disabilities to ensure police don’t worsen a situation.

“I don’t think they are going to be out of the business of responding to these calls any time soon, especially the 5150 calls where police have to be involved, but at the same time, I think it’s really important to have people who are trained in dealing with mental health issues,” Tobler said.

Wong said working in mental health situations is not for everyone and requires lots of training and experience. She said departments should make sure officers have the best possible training and people working in mental health crises. She also recommended a stringent process to determine who answers mental health calls.

“You have to find the right fit for a police department as well. Not just anybody who has a history of working with the disability community or in mental health. It has to be the right special person,” Wong said.

Several panel members discussed their experiences with officers and first responders when in a mental health crisis or when family members dealt with officers. They asked the officers to consider how people feel and help people in those vulnerable situations.

Brown provided an example of when her husband, who has Alzheimer’s disease, had a bad interaction with San Mateo officers. The issue forced Brown to work with the courts to find a solution for her husband that cost her time and money. After talks with the San Mateo Police Department, it decided to have more training on interacting with people with Alzheimer’s disease.

“I hope that as we look at this and continue the dialogue and see how we are going to strengthen the relationships between law enforcement and the community, that we not leave out family members,” Brown said.

The panel also discussed disability language and how law enforcement and the public talk about people with disabilities. Zúñiga said when people use language that takes away the humanistic part of people with disabilities, it makes them feel devalued and not part of the community.

“It dehumanizes us. It’s extremely important for people to really understand that,” Zúñiga said.

She recommended people update their language, educate themselves and ask how people with disabilities identify.

Haobsh on Thursday said the discussion went well. He hopes people reach out with questions about law enforcement to the San Mateo Police Department.

“We need constructive feedback. We need the conflict to talk about our areas of growth,” Haobsh said. “This was a really good opportunity for us to self reflect and figure out where we can do better.”

Haobsh said San Mateo police would have more individual meetings with panel members and work on starting awareness training programs based on the panel’s suggestions and feedback. San Mateo already has plans in 2021 to have clinicians go out on mental health calls with officers.

Haobsh asked the public to continue to show up to meetings and call or email them to learn more and to help them learn more about the community.

“Awareness and education, I think, is huge for us,” he said.

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