Police Commission approves creation of crisis team focused on mentally ill suspects 

The San Francisco Police Commission voted Wednesday night to set up a new team to handle crisis situations involving mentally ill suspects.

The seven-member commission voted unanimously to create a crisis intervention team within the Police Department, which has dealt with two shootings of mentally ill suspects by officers in the past two months.

The team, which will follow a model set up by the Memphis Police Department in the 1980s, would be deployed as first responders or co-responders to mental health calls, Commissioner Angela Chan said.

“This is a large reform we’re engaging in tonight,” Chan said.

Members of the crisis intervention team would receive 40 hours of training on mental health issues, including interaction with mentally ill patients and lessons on identifying symptoms of mental illness and developing verbal de-escalation skills, said retired police Major Sam Cochran, one of the co-creators of the Memphis model.

The Police Department already has 904 officers who have completed at least 40 hours of similar training under a program that started in 2001, but that program was downsized last year due to budget issues, said police Inspector Kelly Dunn, who is also the department’s psychiatric liaison.

Interim Police Chief Jeff Godown also approved of the plan, saying the de-escalation tactics emphasized in the program could even “be morphed into standard procedure.”

The use of force against mentally ill suspects has been a hot topic in San Francisco recently due to two officer-involved shootings that occurred within a week of each other in December and January.

On Dec. 29, Vinh Bui, 46, was fatally shot by officers in The City’s Portola neighborhood after he allegedly stabbed a 15-year-old girl, according to police.

Bui, who had at least a 10-year history of mental illness, was shot after moving toward officers with a knife or scalpel, police said.

On Jan. 4, a man in a wheelchair was shot by officers in the South of Market neighborhood after allegedly stabbing an officer with a knife.

The man, Randal Phillip Dunklin, had allegedly been vandalizing parking meters and cars outside a Department of Public Health behavioral health services building prior to the officers’ arrival.

Dunklin survived the shooting and has a court case pending.

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