Cops to study ways to handle the mentally ill 

Just days after police shot their second mentally ill man in as many weeks, a small contingent of San Francisco officers will fly to Memphis, Tenn. to study that city’s method of training law enforcement to handle people with mental health issues.

Police say the trip to Memphis was planned long before Dec. 29, when officers shot and killed 46-year-old Vinh Bui, a Portola neighborhood resident with a history of mental health problems. Less than a week later, officers shot and injured an agitated man in a wheelchair who allegedly stabbed a cop.

Four officers will leave today to learn about Memphis’ strategies. In that city, officers are trained how to de-escalate potentially violent situations, as well as communication techniques for people with a variety of mental and personality disorders.

San Francisco Mental Health Board Executive Director Helynna Brooke said when she heard about the trip, she “had to pull over and scream” with frustration. She said the trip is a waste of taxpayer money because the training that San Francisco police received until June — when it was axed on budget concerns — was based on the exact same method.

“With the cost of sending them all to Memphis, we could have paid for another training” through San Francisco’s old program, she said.

Police Lt. Troy Dangerfield said the trip is only costing $4,000 and said he didn’t think the Memphis model is the same as the one previously used in San Francisco.

Last year, police ended the decade-long program run by the city’s Mental Health Board in which more than 900 officers were given 40 hours of training for dealing with the mentally ill, according to Dangerfield. The program was brought in-house to save money.

Brooke questioned whether the reduction of the mental health training program could eventually lead to more officer-involved shootings. She said she knows of four police shootings of mentally ill people that occurred in the 10 years the program existed, compared with the two in just the last two weeks.

Dangerfield could not confirm whether the officers involved in both of the shootings had been provided with the 40-hour training before it ended last year, but said it was likely they had.

kworth@sfexaminer.com

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