San Antonio needs better mental health crisis response. Right now, police are the default first responders to these situations. But police are not mental health professionals and they do not have the skills to contain these crises that cannot be solved by arrest or incarceration. This is especially troublesome knowing that one in five adults suffer mental illness every year, meaning mental crises should be viewed as an everyday reality and not an outlier event. Understanding this, the San Antonio City Council recently allocated money for a “co-responder” team. This means that teams of mental health professionals partnered with police will respond to calls involving persons experiencing mental health crises or homelessness.
While this is a step in the right direction, our city council should be pursuing an alternative responder program — one without police. There are two options for this: either amend the current proposed program to be an alternative response team or use eligible American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to fund an alternative response team that runs side-by-side to the current proposed program and evaluate the two against one another.
The co-responder model gained popularity after the murder of George Floyd ignited demands for reform across the country. Unfortunately, the co-responder model doesn’t resolve the fundamental issue that the presence of law enforcement is fundamentally dangerous to those with mental health issues, who are 16 times more likely to be killed by police than others. In fact, in barely over a year, Bexar County sheriff’s deputies took the lives of two local men during mental health crisis calls. Damian Daniels was a young combat veteran whose family made a call for help while he was undergoing mental distress. Nicholas Norris was suffering serious grief after the loss of his mother to COVID-19. Both families have publicly called for justice for their loved ones.
This is true even when officers are specially trained in responding to mental health calls. An exhaustive study of crisis intervention training programs for officers shows that they have no meaningful impact on the department’s use of force. What that means is, even though City Council approved pilot co-responder teams, we will likely not see a meaningful decrease in police use of force in the long run.
We should be considering an alternative. The Denver Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) Program deploys teams that include a licensed behavioral health professional and a paramedic to engage individuals experiencing crises related to mental health issues, poverty, homelessness, and substance abuse. The interaction is grounded in a trauma-informed, harm reduction philosophy. The team arrives dressed in street clothes and provides direct clinical de-escalation and community service connections, as well as on-demand resources such as water, food, clothing, and basic living supports. Another alternative responder program is Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets (CAHOOTS) in Eugene, Oregon, which sends a mental health professional and a medic to answer the above-mentioned crisis calls. Its decades-long success has been replicated in pilot programs around the country.
City Council approved co-responder teams because of a study presented to it by the Meadows Institute. That study dismissed alternative response models because they sometimes request backup from law enforcement. But an analysis of CAHOOTS data shows that only happens in 1%-2% of cases. In 2019 they responded to 24,000 calls and had to call the police in only 311 instances. In the 748 calls handled by the Denver STAR program in its first six months, none required police assistance and no individuals were arrested.
This is because these are highly trained individuals serving on the team. CAHOOTS staff undergo at least 500 hours of field training and 40 hours of class time in subjects like de-escalation and crisis intervention before they can join an elite CAHOOTS field team. By comparison, police trained in crisis intervention typically complete 40 hours of training.
The goal of a non-police response program is to send the right response to each 911 crisis and divert people away from the criminal legal system. This model also opens up the possibility that people who would normally be too afraid to call 911 can do so when they have to. This includes our undocumented and homeless communities as well as people with past criminal records. That group makes up 8% of respondents according to a recent community survey.
A program to send a non-police response to certain 911 calls should not be interpreted as opposition to the police. In fact, San Antonio law enforcement made clear that they do not want to be the primary responder to these types of calls. This type of program will allow our officers to focus more time on the challenges they face every day that threaten public safety, such as violent crime, rather than being sent to calls where they are not needed and that other professionals are better equipped to handle.
Programs like Denver STAR and CAHOOTS have earned respect from law enforcement in their communities and unlocked avenues to help the city’s residents that were not open to the police. This was possible because Denver and Eugene took a chance on something better. San Antonio can do that too. Given the exhaustive data supporting alternative non-police responder programs like Denver STAR, the riskier bet for both our officers and community is the co-responder model currently proposed by the city.