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Our Man in San Fran

Most of the People Killed by San Francisco Cops Are Mentally Ill

For years, the city has failed to look after its mentally ill population, and too often this results in cops having to deal with situations they don't have training in.

by Jules Suzdaltsev
Oct 10 2014, 5:20pm

Photo courtesy of SFCitizen.com

From 2005 to 2013, the San Francisco Police Department killed 19 civilians by gunshot. Data collected by local public television channel KQED shows that 11 of them suffered from a mental illness. The bulk of these killings occurred during a three-year period between March 2007 and December 2010, during which time nearly every person killed by the SFPD was reported to have been mentally ill. As shocking as these statistics are, this is not a unilateral indictment of the police. Rather, it’s a sign of the total inadequacy of the city government, the health department, and more directly, the population of San Francisco, who are apparently willing to turn mental illness into a police problem, which the SFPD is woefully unequipped to deal with.

For at least the past half century, San Francisco has been considered a haven for those with nowhere else to go. The city has a growing homeless population, 63 percent of whom have a mental illness, addiction, or debilitating physical condition. Yet public perception of the less fortunate has changed dramatically in the last few years. Back in the 1990s, former police chief Mayor Frank Jordan tried to tackle the problem by instituting a series of violations aimed at cutting down the homeless population, including citations for public drunkenness, blocking the sidewalk, aggressive panhandling, and public urination, an initiative known as the “Matrix program." He was voted out of office after one term and the program was abandoned by the next mayor, Willie Brown, who described Matrix as “persons in uniforms operating as if they are occupational officers in a conquered land.”

Photo via Flickr user Nate Bolt

Mental health issues are exacerbated by hostile policies toward homelessness, including the decisions to close city parks at night and prohibit lying on public sidewalks during the day. But there are also large swaths of mentally ill folks living with their families and in sponsored housing. In a recent series of interviews with people living in SROs (single-room occupancy housing), I discovered that there is a lot publicly-funded housing secured for those with existing mental health issues. Having shelter is no guarantee of safety, however; many of those shot by police in the past few years were shot within their homes, or just outside of them.

Despite the passing of California Proposition 63 in 2004, which taxed those making over $1 million for the purposes of expanding mental health outreach in the state, the San Francisco Department of Public Health cut $40 million from those same mental health outreach services between 2007 and 2012, with the government proposing that those who needed aid could seek help at alternative care centers (of which there are few) instead of at San Francisco General Hospital, where in 2008 a quarter of their inpatient psychiatric beds were removed as part of the cuts. That same year the SFPD saw a 15 percent increase in their funding.

Photo via Flickr user Dave Fayram

The obvious problem with eliminating outreach in favor of self-service is that many of those suffering from mental illness are often unable to seek help themselves, since a major aspect of mental illness is the inability to judge one’s own mental state. This catch-22 was “solved” in July 2014 when the San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved Laura’s Law, which allowed courts to force treatment on people who’ve been hospitalized or jailed twice in the past three years due to mental illness. Advocacy groups, such as the San Francisco's Coalition on Homelessness see the law as “falsely linking mental illness to violence, and focusing on forced treatment as the silver bullet that will solve the crisis,” as well as allowing “a family member, a roommate, or a police officer to petition the court, and through court order, drag someone before a judge where he or she is mandated into treatment under threat being held in a locked facility for 72 hours.”

Without the resources to get help, or housing, or medication, more and more of the city’s mentally ill are falling through the ever-widening cracks into inevitable confrontations with the SFPD. This is not to say that the police are blameless, but the brunt of responsibility can't be borne by a law enforcement agency simply because the rest of the city has failed to address the issue. But despite the knowledge that those confrontations are on the rise, the police department is also slow to take the necessary steps to protect the proportion of its population that needs their help the most. Take, for example, the widely publicized 2008 case of Teresa Sheehan’s near-fatal shooting.

Photo via Flickr user DC Atty

Sheehan, a 57-year-old woman with schizo-affective disorder, lived in a group home for people with chronic mental illnesses when a social worker came by unannounced to check on her. According to him, she verbally threatened him and ordered him out of her room, which prompted him to call the police and initiate a “5150” involuntary psychiatric hold. The two officers who arrived forced open her door, found Teresa clutching a knife and demanding a warrant, then proceeded to pepper-spray her, and, as she advanced toward him, shot her five times. When she hit the ground, an officer came up to her and shot her point-blank in the head through the temple.

Somehow, Teresa survived and was charged with assault, which ended in a mistrial when the jury failed to come to a verdict. Now she is suing the SFPD for their use of excessive force, as well violating her civil rights and the Americans with Disabilities Act. The case is still pending.

Photo via Flickr user Jason Legate

San Francisco has tried on more than one occasion to teach officers to deal with unstable, uncooperative individuals without shooting them. Back in 2001, San Francisco rejected the idea of having a dedicated crisis intervention team, and instead attempted to train all officers in the necessary techniques. But training was cut due to funding issues, and less than half the department had undergone the course before it was canceled. Then in 2011, after police had shot and killed six mentally ill individuals in the previous three years, the SFPD adopted a program designed to educate its cops on high-tension encounters with the mentally unstable by training officers in crisis intervention. (It was based on the “Memphis Model,”)

Despite being called a "Crisis Intervention Team," the point of the program is not to establish a dedicated group of responders who can help mentally ill people. I reached out to the SFPD for clarification, and was told, "There is not a crisis intervention team. There are officers that have received crisis intervention training and are in our patrol forces available when called upon... We definitely understand to address persons in mental crisis with different measures. That's the reason we are in the process of training more officers... in crisis intervention."

Though some cities considering similar measures have created a team of cops who specialize in dealing with the mentally ill, Police Chief Greg Suhr has spoken out against that idea, telling KQED: “Police officers by nature find niches... I don’t want cops to find a niche and be expert on what they do and don’t do. I want them to do it all.” On the bright side, since the start of the program, only half of the last eight fatal police shooting victims were mentally ill.

Follow Jules Suzdaltsev on Twitter.

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