The City of San Antonio is planning to deploy a new emergency response team that will likely include a police officer, mental health clinician and an emergency medical technician for 911 calls that involve mental health as soon as April.

Before City Council’s Public Safety Committee reviewed the pilot program Tuesday, they heard from mental health advocates and several residents with mental health issues. These individuals asked to replace the police officer on the team with a peer support specialist — someone with lived experiences and mental health training. Police should only serve as a secondary response in extreme cases, they said.

“The city’s co-responder program will inevitably result in continued unnecessary deaths,” said Olen Sluder, who has bipolar disorder.

He cited the case of Nicholas Norris, who was fatally shot by a Bexar County sheriff’s deputy in September as Norris attempted to drive away. His family said Norris was experiencing a mental health crisis.

“The proper outcome should have been compassionate intervention by well-trained professionals, not lethal force by inadequately trained law enforcement,” Sluder said.

Sluder’s own symptoms would likely be misinterpreted by an officer as aggression or being under the influence of stimulants or psychedelics, he said. “I do not want to be a statistic. More so, I do not want my brothers and sisters in my community to be statistics.”

Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez (D2) said he would like to see another pilot program deployed simultaneously that does not automatically include an officer on all mental health calls. This program would use money coming to the city from the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).

“ARPA has given us a unique opportunity to make one-time investments,” McKee-Rodriguez said. “

The city is collecting community input on how to use the remaining federal money and is slated to allocate it in January.

Deputy City Manager María Villagómez said such a pilot would be an eligible use of ARPA funds, but removing police from the team presents safety concerns for the other team members.

“Our professional recommendation to the council is to have a law enforcement presence as we do this pilot program,” Villagómez said. “We’re not opposed to — once we have the data to evaluate — a different model.”

Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) agreed.

“Let’s see what this program yields,” Perry said, before making adjustments.

San Antonio’s program will be modeled after Bexar County’s SMART program and Dallas’ RIGHT Care team, which include police on all calls, Villagómez said.

The city will ask council to amend a contract it has with the Southwest Texas Regional Advisory Council in order to hire seven additional mental health clinicians. Four would join the team, which would operate in shifts out of the Central Substation every day from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. The other three would be placed in the 911 call center to help direct the teams to the right calls.

Although there are three areas that account for most of the more than 20,000 mental health calls SAPD receives each year, the pilot program will cover just one. Researchers hired by the city found the greatest level of intensity and public safety needs occur most often in the 78207 zip code, which includes the near West Side, the city’s largest homeless shelter and small parts of downtown. The Central Substation, which receives 18-20% of total mental health calls, covers that area in addition to the downtown Greyhound bus station, another hotspot.

“We acknowledge that there may be certain situations and circumstances where law enforcement may need to be involved,” Justin Martinez, policy analyst and Bexar County project director for Texas Center for Justice and Equity, told the committee. “Even though we’re advocating that law enforcement not be part of the core team, in no way are we suggesting they be completely ignored. What we are suggesting is that law enforcement involvement should not be a given in these situations.”

This structure is similar to one that was suggested by the San Antonio Clubhouse, which operates a community center for people with mental health conditions. Under its proposal, higher-priority and higher-risk calls would include a police-paramedic-clinician team with a peer support specialist. Lower priority calls would not involve a police officer.

Police Chief William McManus said the level of engagement by the police officer will depend entirely on the situation.

“What role, where the police officer will position themselves — it’s very fluid based on the situation,” McManus said.

Police officers are the only ones on this team who have the authority to carry out an emergency detention.

That issue would get worked out on the scene, McManus said, but ultimately, that “falls on the police officer to make that final decision.”

Councilwoman Phyllis Viagran (D3) said she wants to make sure that the clinician and EMT play a role in making that decision.

Viagran, McKee-Rodriguez, and Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) suggested the program should be expanded quickly if it is successful.

The city will monitor the success of the pilot team by measuring key outcomes, Villagómez said.

Those metrics are still being formed, but the general goal is to reduce emergency detentions, arrests, use of force, and the volume of mental health calls by de-escalating situations and connecting individuals to short and long-term services, she said.

The mental health response team is just one of a number of recent changes to the police department policies and how the city funds public safety that come after a comprehensive review of police services performed over the past year. The review was part of the city’s response to calls for police reform in the wake of the 2020 murder of George Floyd by a Minnesota policeman.

The co-responder model, one that involves police, hasn’t gotten as much traction locally or nationally as the alternative responder model, which all but removes police, said Ananda Tomas, executive director of Act 4 SA, which advocates for police reform.

“The City Manager’s office has made it very clear that they are dragging their feet on that and don’t want to implement a program to run side by side with another [one], even though they’ve heard this from multiple community stakeholders,” Tomas said.

She cited the Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets program in Eugene, Oregon, and the Support Team Assisted Response program in Denver, which have shown police officers are rarely needed on most mental health calls.

Another pilot would allow the teams to cover more areas of the community, she said. “And we are proposing that this alternative responder team handles low-level mental health calls … where it’s very clear, you don’t need an armed responder.”

This is the type of team that would have helped Laura Moreno when she was about to attempt suicide in 2019, Moreno told the committee. She lives with PTSD, major depressive disorder, and generalized anxiety after a traumatizing childhood.

“Had an alternative response team been available, I probably would have chosen to pick up the phone rather than [consider] … suicide,” said Moreno, who now works at the SA Clubhouse.

She didn’t need a police officer that day, but she understands the impulse to include them on the team.

“I think initially it’s OK, because we don’t know what we’re going to find out — it is a pilot,” she told the San Antonio Report after the meeting. “But in the future, if it turns out to be a success … just clinicians would be great.”

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org