New team to respond to 911 calls related to mental health

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The city of San Antonio will soon launch a pilot program that will send specially trained police officers, paramedics and licensed clinicians to certain mental health-related 911 calls.

The multidisciplinary team, now called SA Core, for Community Outreach and Resiliency Effort, aims to reduce arrests by instead connecting people to the mental health services they need during a crisis. The one-year, $1.7 million pilot project is funded through the city’s fiscal year 2022 budget.

An official launch is scheduled for April 18.

The program has been in development for at least a year and a half. The need for a specialist team emerged as part of the city’s 2020 policing review in response to protests following the police killing of George Floyd. By August of last year, the city had largely settled on a model based in part on the Dallas Police Department’s successful and growing program.

SA Core will begin covering the San Antonio Police Department Territory of the central postwhich includes Downtown and much of the Near West and North Sides, seven days a week. Two teams will cover from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., responding to mental health-related calls that do not involve weapons, Eric Epley, executive director of the Southwest Texas Regional Advisory Council, told a board committee on Monday.

The role of the police officer will be to ensure that the scene is safe for the patient and the other members of the team. The clinician — provided by the Center for Health Care Services — will perform behavioral health assessments and the paramedic will respond to physical health issues, Epley said. The team will then decide how to proceed.

Epley said he hopes most situations can be resolved on the spot by connecting patients with their doctor or their existing medications. The team may also offer voluntary courtesy walks to family members, doctors or facilities. Under state law, only the police officer has the authority to order emergency detention against a patient’s will.

The work won’t stop once the call is over, Epley said. SA Core will connect patients to follow-up care via a case manager provided by various associative partners or a private service provider if they have insurance.

“It’s not just about their mental health care, but also things like social services and food, housing and benefits,” he said. “We want to make sure we’re taking care of all of these things for patients.”

Bexar County launched a similar program in 2020, two months after a the sheriff’s deputy killed a veteran experience an episode of mental health. The Specialized Multidisciplinary Alternative Response Team (SMART) has shown promising results, expanding to two teams in 2021 and increasing coverage to include weekends, 24 hours a day, earlier this year.

Of the 934 calls SMART answered from October 2020 to December 2021, the vast majority, 84%, resulted in someone receiving help from the Center for Health Care Services for the first time.

None of those calls involved the use of force, Epley told Bexar County commissioners in February. Proponents of police reform argued that police officers were not needed for such calls. But Center for Health Care Services CEO Jelynne LeBlanc Jamison said a small percentage of calls require a police presence, for everyone’s safety.

“I take sending my employees on these calls very seriously,” Jamison said. “We have exclusion criteria before sending our teams to respond to these calls. If there is an individual with an active mandate, if there is an individual known to be violent, we call on the police, because they are the ones who are trained to handle these situations.

For the SMART team, less than half of the calls were resolved on the spot or with a patient transported to a care facility, meaning the call was resolved relatively quickly and did not result in a detention.

STRAC, along with Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute, will collect similar metrics to measure SA Core outcomes, Epley said. They will also track calls that could have been answered by SA Core, but are outside of the Central Substation’s service area, to help assess city-wide needs for possible future expansion. from the program.

Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) said the city should fund “at least one more” SACore team in next year’s budget, even though the pilot program will have less than five months of data by the time Council votes. the 2023 budget in September.

His suggestion was rebuffed by Councilman Clayton Perry (D10), who said he would not support an additional unit “until we start getting feedback from that pilot”.

Police reform groups, including the Texas Center for Justice & Equity and ACT 4 SA, have called for the creation of a community advisory group to oversee the pilot, review metrics and make recommendations for improvement. Such councils have been formed in other cities that have similar multidisciplinary response teams.

“It’s obviously important that we track meaningful data and that the data is tracked in an accessible and transparent way, but what’s also important is that the community has a say in what that meaningful data looks like.” , said Justin Martinez, political officer. analyst for the Texas Center for Justice & Equity, “…and in all other key decision-making processes in this program.”

The Center for Health Care Services has offered its existing Center Advisory Board, which includes people who have direct experience with mental health, to serve as an oversight board.

But Councilor Jalen McKee-Rodriguez (D2) has suggested a separate advisory group could be formed, perhaps appointed by council members.

City staff will return to the committee next month with options on how to structure this group, including the health care services center option.

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