‘A More Humane Approach’

Response Team assists San Franciscans in crisis

Most cities throughout the country deploy local police departments to respond to mental health emergencies. This was also true in San Francisco until recently, when the city became one of the first to fully implement a new mental health response strategy. 

The San Francisco Street Crisis Response Team launched as a pilot program designed to help people experiencing mental health and substance use crises on the streets, and has been providing 24/7 citywide service since September 2021. 

“Each response team includes one community paramedic, one behavioral health clinician and one behavioral health peer specialist, someone who’s lived experience may include homelessness and behavioral health needs and who is in recovery,” Noel Sanchez, a spokesperson for the San Francisco Department of Health, wrote in an email. “They work together to deescalate, or calm down, crises in the streets.”

Almost 25% of people killed by police officers since 2015 had a known mental illness, according to data acquired by the Washington Post. While the SFPD provides Crisis Intervention Training, the Crisis Response team was designed to create a fundamental change in the way San Francisco handles public safety, according to a press release from Mayor London Breed. 

“I think the program is a good idea because people who need this help are probably in a stressful situation where mental health professionals could help,” junior Natalie Posner said. “I also think having police there could make the person feel scared.”

The San Francisco program was inspired by the CAHOOTS initiative in Eugene, Oregon. CAHOOTS is a partnership between the city police and mental health specialists that handled over 18,000 911 calls in 2019 and has gained critical acclaim since its creation nearly 30 years ago, according to the Eugene Police Department

“My wife had an experience where she stopped to help a person in distress and waited until the police came,” Chair of Community Life Michael Buckley said. “The result of that crisis was a sick person going to jail, so if the Crisis Team can do better than that I think it’s worth it.”

The Crisis Response team assisted 271 clients in September, handling 63% of those crises at the scene, meaning the client “remained safely in community,” according to the program’s website. The team has released monthly infographics with statistics such as client’s outcomes, race and living situation since April 2021. 

“I think it is important for the city to be transparent so that everyone can know what they are doing to help people,” sophomore Catherine Fox said. “I am glad San Francisco is doing this because sending people who have experience dealing with mental health crises seems like it would help and make people more comfortable.” 

While the goal of the program is to deescalate situations, Street Crisis Response team members have the option to call the police or place clients in psychiatric holds if necessary. 

“People in crisis can often react in ways that can feel threatening to people without experience, and so in those situations, meeting hostility with violence or aggression can be harmful,” psychologist Ariel Trost said. “This feels like a more humane approach, which is exciting.” 

The Street Crisis Response team is one aspect of a citywide mental health program known as Mental Health SF. This includes implementing addiction, rehabilitation, and crisis diversion initiatives, according to the San Francisco Department of Public Health. 

“The City should do all it can to help people in these situations,” Posner said. “I am glad San Francisco is becoming a leader in mental health.”