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U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services
Located in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley and graced by a year-round temperate climate, Santa Clara City is an ideal place to live and work. Yet this city of approximately 130,000 residents is no different from hundreds of others in which law enforcement is frequently called on to respond to people suffering from mental illness.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 21 percent of American adults experienced mental illness in 2020. Many calls for service to the Santa Clara City Police Department (SCPD) have historically not only involved mental illness, but have been repeat calls for response to the same individuals.
To address this problem both compassionately and effectively, the SCPD developed a comprehensive, preventive program for responding to mental health disturbances, and in 2020 created a Crisis Intervention Specialist (CIS) team to implement it.
SCPD’s COPS Office photo contest winning image shows two CIS specialists, both of whom are sworn officers. They dress in plainclothes and respond in a non-threatening manner to individuals experiencing a mental health crisis. Most importantly, the specialists offer resources and other forms of support that can prevent a recurrence of the incident.
The CIS Unit and its officers are part of the SCPD’s Community Response Team (CRT), which manages a caseload related to "quality of life" issues and offenses, such as neighborhood disputes, abatement of criminal nuisance locations, and issues related to homelessness.
Though CIS works closely with other members of the CRT, and requests assistance from other SCPD units when needed, its primary goals are to reduce repeat emergency hospitalizations, lower recidivism rates among mentally ill offenders, and prevent tragic outcomes.
To support these efforts, CIS partners with faith-based groups, social services, and other organizations. Said Sergeant Greg Deger, supervisor of the CRT, “CIS does a tremendous job of networking. Today, our entire team is meeting with ABODE, a group that connects people with housing.”
To maximize coverage, CIS schedules are staggered across days of the week and hours on duty. The SCPD recently announced the intention to double the number of CIS officers in the department from two to four. The department is also deep in talks to bring a civilian mental health clinician onto CRT.
When a mental health call comes in, the CIS officer on duty responds to it, offering on-the-spot assistance as well as connections to social services and mental health resources and transport to a hospital or detention facility, if needed. When not out on the street, CIS officers work on their cases, following up with the people they’re helping.
Each CIS officer has received approximately 230 hours of training in areas such as mental health crisis response and interpersonal interaction, as well as authoring search warrants and other police procedures related to mental health calls. Said Sergeant Deger, “They get some in-house plain-clothes training too, because these officers are new to this kind of assignment.
“They wear a badge, as well as a duty belt and vest if they feel they will need it, and use a low-key approach. These officers are so good at talking and being patient, they’re skilled at deescalating. The incidence of use of force is incredibly low in our mental health crisis cases.”
According to data compiled by the SCPD, this approach has been successful. Since the program began in 2020, the number of mental health calls being handled by patrol officers has been significantly reduced.
Said Sergeant Deger, “After doing an analysis of mental health incidents, I saw that the number handled by patrol officers in 2021 was lower than in 2020, even though our population has grown since then. We are also seeing a reduction in detentions and transfers to emergency psychiatric services, while there’s an increase in people being connected to resources and services.”
Among those was a man experiencing homelessness whose behavior prompted numerous complaints. After establishing a relationship with him, CIS learned that he wished to reunite with family in Mississippi. With the help of donations, CIS gave him a bus ticket and fresh clothing. A few days later, he was reunited with his family.
Another man, also homeless and in bad shape, covered with filth, was causing disturbances to various businesses. CRT officers, including the CIS team, responded to the man’s location with mental health clinicians in tow. Although the man was initially hesitant and verbally resistive, CRT and CIS officers were able to get him placed on a mental health evaluation hold without having to use force.
According to Sergeant Deger, after the situation was resolved, one of the business owners said, “‘I can’t think you enough for helping this guy. He scared our customers, but we didn’t know what to do about him. It’s been a night and day difference since you intervened.’ We get stories like this every week.”
“We’re getting a lot of good feedback about CIS from the community in emails from residents and others,” Deger added.
“As for our department, our officers love it! We have very high numbers of personnel who are Crisis Intervention Trained (CIT), so everybody here, top to bottom, recognizes the importance of a compassionate approach.”
“Plus, when CIS team members respond to these calls, it frees up other officers who can go out to combat crime. There is also a sense that a lot of these problems can eventually be solved by these CIS officers, and that it’s not going to be a revolving door for people with mental health issues.”
Other officers rave about the CIS position, and many want to join. “Our plainclothes street crimes teams had openings, which people put in for because that’s a cool job; but we had an even larger number of officers test for the CIS positions.”
Asked how he would advise other departments wishing to build a CIS team, Sergeant Deger said, “Besides testing, selecting, and training officers, there’s logistics to consider—unmarked cars, everything that comes with a plainclothes assignment, plus what hours your team will work and how to maximize coverage. We had our in-house crime analyst see which times, days of the week, and areas of the city were the most in need, and then deployed accordingly.”
“Ask neighboring agencies about their best practices, then craft your policies. And get buy-in from department and city leadership because you will likely have to pull in bodies from street patrol. You might need to draw from other sworn positions, as well.”
“Start networking to see what’s working and what’s not,” Deger added. “We’ve helped many other agencies seeking to establish teams for response to homelessness and/or mental health issues. We talk to them and share what we’ve learned.”
But CIS is only one of many services and programs this department of 232 full time employees provides to the city of Santa Clara. Said Deger, “We have Chat with the Chief, National Night Out, Neighborhood Watch, and similar programs.”
“We are always looking for ways to be progressive and innovative,” stated Sergeant Deger. “A new initiative we’re proud of is a Special Needs Awareness Program (SNAP) for residents who have family members with special needs. They can submit their names and addresses to our data base, so that we know how to best approach each situation.
“If they are deaf, for instance, we will know that verbal commands won’t work and use other means to communicate. Or if somebody with autism is triggered by bright lights, we may turn off the flashing emergency lights when we arrive.
“Among our internal programs, we have an officer wellness committee focused not just on mental health, but physical fitness, and environmental, occupational, and financial wellness, too, because that translates into how you act on the street.
“We have many social events, including a baseball team that plays in the community, as well. SCPD is a fun place to work, like a family. When people are happy to come to work and feel valued, they take that positivity into the community.”
Faye C. Elkins
Sr. Technical Writer
Images Courtesy of Santa Clara (California) Police Department.
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