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Mental health team to work closely with SFPD during crisis

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An officer stands outside the Crown Hotel on Friday in the Mission District, where an armed suspect barricaded herself inside and prompted a seven-hour negotiation with police. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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San Francisco police shut down several blocks of Valencia Street on Friday because Samantha Helstrom, 57, had barricaded herself inside her Mission District home.

The seven-hour negotiations were lead by the department’s Hostage Negotiation Team, but a Department of Public Health employee was on the scene, too, as is often the case in such instances.

DPH and the San Francisco Police Department have long had ongoing cooperation when it comes to instances pertaining to mental health. But an effort by Mayor Ed Lee’s administration to create a team that focuses on mental health crises will bring that cooperation much closer through a formal agreement.

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The agreement, which was announced in October, tasks a team of DPH workers with responding to mental health crises side by side with police. When fully staffed, the five-person DPH team will be on call 24 hours a day. The joint effort also focuses on reaching out to people who are repeatedly hospitalized after mental health situations.

Friday’s events were not the first time the department has closed streets to deal with someone who may be in a mental health crisis, but their measured reaction is increasingly part of how the SFPD responds to such situations. With a new policing model focused on de-escalation, the department is taking one more step in the direction of transformation during a time of reform.

In any given year, the department responds to roughly 4,000 mental health hospitalizations — often referred to as 5150s, per police code — and has already identified 100 people who are frequently sent to the hospital for psychiatric holds. In one case, a person was sent to the hospital 48 times in one year, according to Lt. Mario Molina who is heading the effort.

The department’s team that has identified those cases is part of the expanded crisis intervention work inside the department and focuses on changing how police respond to mental health crisis. Even before last October’s announcement by the mayor, the department had already trained about 300 officers in crisis intervention. The newly expanded DPH team that will work with SFPD is part of that effort.

“Their role will be for advice” Molina told the Police Commission March 8. “It’s a work in progress, but I think we’re getting there.”

The department’s team focuses on prevention by identifying the people most often in crisis, tracking their cases and dealing with the crisis. When a crisis occurs, the department will call on one of the DPH’s team members. That person will aid the hostage negotiators on the scene.

“Our role on the scene would be to report to the operational commander of the hostage negotiations team,” said Angelica Almeida at DPH, who added that the new agreement between the agencies is really an expansion of already existing cooperation with the Adult Mobile Crisis Unit.

The team would send its on-call staff member to any crisis situation. That person would advise the hostage negotiation team, even going as far as contacting the subject’s doctor or family in an effort to end the crisis. But they would also follow the person if they were sent to the hospital or jail and make sure that person also had an exit plan.

“The Crisis Intervention Specialists seek to accomplish peaceful resolutions to conflicts and to reduce harm,” said Lee in a statement on the creation of the joint effort last October. “This is the latest reform that prioritizes the sanctity of life above all else.”

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