A majority of the officers involved in the past four cases in which San Francisco police officers shot a mentally ill person had completed 40 hours of special training designed to help resolve such incidents without violence.
Much has been made of the San Francisco Police Department having canceled that crisis-intervention program. Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi has proposed an inquiry into whether its termination has led to bad police officer decisions, and the Police Commission is poised to discuss a plan to send out specially trained officers to calls involving mentally disturbed people.
But given that most of the officers involved in such shootings during 2010 or 2011 had already undergone extra training, questions must be raised about the program’s effectiveness.
“You can be trained till the end of time, but when you’re making a split-second decision on when to shoot and not to shoot, all the training in the world doesn’t make a huge difference,” said Gary Delagnes, the president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association.
Training is important, but it needs to be coupled with real-world experience, Police Commissioner Angela Chan said. “There needs to be a specialized team — a crisis-intervention team — that can be the first to respond to any incident involving mental health crisis calls.”
The classes were stopped in June and have not been reinstated. Four months after that, officers shot Michael Lee inside his Tenderloin residence after police say he charged toward them with a weapon. In December, police shot and killed Vinh Bui inside his Portola home after he stabbed a 15-year-old girl with a scalpel.
Police shot and injured Randal Dunklin, who was in a wheelchair, after he reportedly stabbed an officer in January. And nearly a year earlier, police shot and killed Edward Smith inside his apartment after he approached officers with a machete.
In every incident except the Bui shooting, the officers who fired their guns had taken crisis-intervention classes, according to SFPD spokesman Lt. Troy Dangerfield, who would not release the names of the officers involved in each fatal incident.
In Dunklin’s case, which is likely to end up in a civil lawsuit against The City, three of the four officers being investigated had undergone crisis training.
Director Helynna Brooke of the San Francisco Mental Health Board, which organized the training sessions, said it is important to remember that officers use various techniques to keep incidents from turning violent.
“How many incidents on a daily basis don’t come to a crisis?” Brooke said. “You can’t measure that.”
The San Francisco Police Commission’s hearing on the training is set for Wednesday.
One week later, the commission is scheduled to hold a hearing about another proposal for how to resolve such interactions without fatalities, by arming San Francisco police officers with stun guns.
“I can’t think of a better solution than allowing officers to carry Tasers,” Delagnes said in support of a proposal the SFPD recently renewed.