Requests for aid denied, police say

In response to an incident in which police officers shot and injured a mentally ill woman wielding a knife, law enforcement and mental health officials say that they have been asking for expanded mental health services to help police for years, but to no avail. In some cases, they said, services have been taken away.

For at least 10 years, the Mental Health Board has asked for approximately $1 million per year to expand its part-time Mobile Crisis Treatment Team — on call for when police find themselves in a situation that requires mental-health professionals — to be a full-time operation. However, the money has never been found, said Helynna Brooke, the board’s executive director.

Additionally, what was once about a six-person unit of psychiatric liaison officers in the Police Department has throughout the last 15 years been whittled down to just a single officer, who is unable to respond to all calls, police Sgt. Mike Sullivan said.

About 25 percent of all police interactions with the public involve a person with a mental illness, said Sullivan, who helps train officers to handle such interactions.

One such interaction resulted in violence when two officers shot 56-year-old Teresa Sheehan on Aug. 7 after she allegedly threatened to kill them and a social worker with a knife. Sheehan’s family said she suffers from mild schizophrenia. Sheehan survived the shooting.

A series of similar episodes — all involving knives — in 2001 and 2002 resulted in the force expanding its training, according to police officials.

Police Chief Heather Fong said in a written statement that 1,400 field officers have gone through an eight-hour training on mental health crisis situations, and more than 50 percent of those have gone through an expanded 40-hour training.

“What would be of great help to officers on the street would be availability of 24-hour mobile crisis teams that would work with officers,” she said.

When asked why the program hasn’t been funded, mayoral spokesman Joe Arellano said the money hasn’t been available.

Unfortunately, Sullivan said, calling 911 is frequently the only option available.

“Most mental health services close at 5 p.m., so police by default become the mental health agency a lot of the time,” he said.

kworth@sfexaminer.com

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