A proposal in the current budget would expand a Fire Department program pairing social workers with paramedics for response to mental health calls. (Courtesy photo)

Mental-health crisis teams could replace police response

Proposal would team paramedics with social workers or counselors and peer advocates

San Francisco plans to launch new emergency response teams as early as this fall to respond to those having a mental health crisis instead of relying on police officers.

The six teams — four to launch this fall, and the other two by March 2021 — could potentially handle an estimated 20,000 calls for people in mental health distress currently responded to by police officers. Officers respond to about 300,000 total calls for service each year.

Mayor London Breed announced earlier this month funding of nearly $17 million in her budget proposal to fund four teams over two fiscal years.

But during review of the budget proposal Friday, Supervisors Hillary Ronen and Rafael Mandelman announced a plan to repurpose funding within the Department of Public Health budget to fund two more teams. The committee is expected to make a final decision Wednesday.

The funding is contingent upon the passage of the gross receipts tax reform measure on the Nov. 3 ballot.

“At least we will be able to say that we are trying to redirect all 21,000 of those calls,” Mandelman said during the committee’s hearing on the Public Health Department’s budget. “If this goes well, it may be that in the future we actually do need to add maybe even another team.”

Breed said in a statement earlier this month that “when people are experiencing a mental health crisis on our streets, we want to be able to respond in a way that is most appropriate and gets the person connected with the care and support they need.”

“Often, calls to 911 or 311 about someone who appears to be having a behavioral health emergency don’t actually need an armed police response,” she said.

The proposal is essentially an expansion of the Fire Department’s EMS-6 division, which currently pairs paramedics with the Homeless Outreach Team to address those on the street in need of medical and social services.

Under the proposal, each three-member team would include a paramedic, either a licensed clinical social worker, a marriage/family counselor or a psychologist and a peer advocate.

Simon Pang, section chief of the San Francisco Fire Department’s EMS-6 division, told the budget committee Thursday that the four units are not going to “cover the approximately 20,000 crisis response calls that the Police ran in 2019.”

Asked by Ronen if six teams would, Pang said, “if we work our butts off.”

“We would have to have nine to 10 encounters every 12-hour shift,” Pang said. “And that is the assumption that an encounter would take about one hour. I think that’s a reasonable assumption.”

Pang said law enforcement was not the best approach for mental health crisis calls. “Contact with law enforcement can be a trigger for people in crisis. It can be escalating,” Pang said.

The proposed Street Crisis Response Teams are part of Mental Health SF, a program approved by the Board of Supervisors and Breed to reform The City’s behavioral health system.

jsabatini@sfexaminer.com

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