San Francisco police to begin enhanced training for dealing with mentally ill persons

Courtesy photoThe police shooting of Randal Dunklin

Courtesy photoThe police shooting of Randal Dunklin

San Francisco police will soon begin the first in a possible series of in-depth training sessions on how to deal with mentally ill or intoxicated people in crisis situations.

The crisis intervention training is meant to build on instruction that officers already receive, but was expanded after several highly publicized police shootings of armed, mentally ill people.

“It’s still a little bit of a work-in-progress,” Michael Gause, associate director of the Mental Health Association of San Francisco, said at Wednesday’s meeting of the Police Commission. Yet Gause was positive about the program, noting that “core leaders” from the Police Department are on board with it.

“We really want this to be a true partnership,” Gause said.

Police Cmdr. Mikail Ali, who is overseeing its implementation, said the first session will include 25 officers and six lieutenants and take place Dec. 5 to 8.

“It is incredibly important for supervision and management to be aware of the approaches in dealing with individuals who are in crisis, whether they be mental health issues or substance abuse issues,” Ali said.

He said he hopes the program will have an influence on new recruits who see how the trained officers interact with individuals in such crisis situations.

In January, police shot Randal Dunklin, a wheelchair user who had stabbed an officer in the arm. Dunklin’s attorney said his client suffers from physical and mental disabilities and lashed out in self-defense when he was suddenly surrounded by plainclothes officers screaming at him to drop his knife. Dunklin survived the shooting and was acquitted last week of felony assault on a police officer while being convicted of brandishing a knife and vandalism, both misdemeanors.

Gause said December’s training will emphasize de-escalating potentially violent situations and what it’s like to live with those suffering from mental illness. But he cautioned that sustained funding was needed. Police said they will seek grant money.

Commissioner James Slaughter said continuing the program would be a priority for the commission, and a benefit to police officers.

“It’s really a way to make their job better and make the public safer, and to engender trust and better, real, community policing,” Slaughter said.

aburack@sfexaminer.com

Violent encounters

Recent police shootings involving suspects with mental health issues:

  • Jan. 23, 2010: Edward Smith, 65, killed after charging at police with a machete in what former police Chief George Gascón referred to as a “classic suicide-by-cop” case
  • Sept. 26, 2010: Michael Lee, 43, killed inside his Tenderloin residential hotel room after police say he charged at them with a weapon
  • Dec. 29, 2010: Vinh Bui, a 46-year-old man who approached police with a scalpel after stabbing a 15-year-old girl inside a Portola district home
  • Jan. 4, 2011: Randal Dunklin, a 55-year-old homeless man in a wheelchair who had been vandalizing cars in South of Market and stabbed one of the officers in the arm
  • Oct. 3, 2011: Peter Woo, a 44-year-old man who police said came at them with two knives inside his Richmond district home after the man had stabbed his mother and father

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