San Mateo’s participation in a pilot mental health crisis program has led to better interactions and collaboration between the public and its police department, with San Mateo Police Chief Ed Barberini praising the program’s initial start.
“So far, we are thrilled with the program. We are working through some kinks, but nothing like we’ve anticipated,” Barberini said.
San Mateo police are working to improve responses to mental health issues through a new pilot program started in December. Called the Community Wellness & Crisis Response Team program a mental health clinician from San Mateo County is embedded into various operations and police responses to help with mental health crises. Redwood City, South San Francisco and Daly City are the other San Mateo County cities participating. The goal is to provide an alternative to jail and hospital emergency rooms for people in crisis and free up officers to respond to other issues. Since it started in December, there have been around 166 incidents in San Mateo, with 77 calls for welfare checks, 20 for follow-ups, 19 for disturbances, 13 for people who are homeless, and 11 for suspicious people.
Barberini praised the program at a March 23 police community event, noting it provides an impact and reduces police interactions with people who persistently interact with officers.
“Most importantly, it provides the individuals the help that they need, but it also alleviates the police officers from having to get into any type of confrontation situations with people who are suffering from difficulties,” Barberini said.
San Mateo worked with the county manager’s office and Supervisor Don Horsley’s Office to fill a void around real-time responses to people expiring mental health issues. The pilot program will last around two years.
“There are other alternatives rather than handcuffs, sometimes, that can address these types of issues and provide a more of a long-term solution rather than an immediate bandaid,” Barberini said.
Briana Fair is a mental health clinician working with the San Mateo Police Department who goes on calls with officers. She typically talks to the officers to get background information before speaking with the person involved. Once officers declare the scene safe, she assesses the person involved and determines how best to provide help. Fair, the officers and clients then collaborate on the best solution, ranging from hospitalization, accessing resources or working with nonprofits. Police officers speaking at the meeting praised Fair for her work in getting to know officers, performing well during interactions with people, and helping de-escalate the crisis. She shared her excitement about the program and taking it into the community.
“I want to be great at this job, and I want the program to work because I know there’s a need in the community,” Fair said.
Fair said she does not go on calls where the person cannot communicate, like an overdose, but goes on nearly all other mental health calls. Staffing levels are also being evaluated with the program. Fair handled around 25 calls in February but is not available all the time. Barberini estimated there were an additional 100 calls in February she would have been helpful for had she been on duty. He believes a permanent program with a mental health clinician 12-16 hours a day would be ideal.
“I’m hopeful that we will see this program grow,” Barberini said.
Local nonprofit StarVista trains and supervises clinicians, while the John Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities at Stanford University will independently evaluate the program for further refinement and advice. A public report on the program will be made available on Stanford’s website at a future date, with public presentations on results a possibility.
San Mateo’s City Council has prioritized police accountability and transparency and expanded mental health and social services. Public pressure has led to calls for more accountability and openness nationally and locally, pushing for more resources and services for mental health.
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I have seen this program in action when someone in the neighborhood experienced a crisis. It was truly remarkable to see how the officers and mental health professional worked hand in hand to help someone who was confused and frightened. Kudos to SMPD for taking part in this program and giving officers and the community additional resources for dealing with challenging situations.
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