When Bay Area residents protested police brutality last summer, most of the focus was placed on Oakland. The police force there has been criticized for their brutal tactics since the Black Panthers “cop watching” patrols of the 1960s, and the city pays out millions of dollars to settle allegations against the force every year, according to a recent analysis of public records by KTVU. But just because incidents of police brutality in San Francisco are lower in number than in the East Bay, that doesn’t mean SFPD has a record of benevolence.
In 2015, the killing of Mario Woods sparked protests across the Bay Area, and the shooting of Cesar Vargas sparked similar protests last October. Approximately 50,000 calls about homelessness are made to 311 each year in San Francisco, according to an S.F. Examiner report from last summer. Although reporting encampments through 311 sometimes draws responses from homeless outreach professionals, it often results in the deployment of police, who have been accused of conducting violent sweeps.
In response to last year’s protests, Mayor London Breed announced a “roadmap” to reshape policing. The plans break down into four categories: demilitarizing the police, ending the use of police for non-criminal activity, addressing police bias and strengthening accountability, and redirecting funding for racial equity. Though there isn’t any deadline in place, the city deployed their first unarmed Street Crisis Response Teams last November. The teams, each made up of a community paramedic, behavioral health clinician, and behavioral health peer specialist, respond to non-criminal behavioral health emergencies.
On Wednesday, May 10, the city made its next major step on Breed’s roadmap, announcing its plan to create a Street Wellness Response Team. This team, made up of community paramedics and EMTs from the San Francisco Fire Department and Homeless Outreach Team members from the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, will be assigned to intervene in non-criminal calls that don’t quite meet the threshold of a behavioral crisis. Many of these situations involve people who are in need of housing, clothing, or mental health treatment.
Mayor London Breed will be including funding for the program — $9.6 million to fund five teams over two years — in her next budget proposal on June 1.
“We are continuing our work to make a significant change to improve how we effectively serve people in need on our streets,” Mayor Breed said in a press release. “Many calls to 911 or 311 about someone who appears to need help on our streets don’t require an armed police response, and often the services and care people need would be best provided by a paramedic or outreach worker instead of a police officer.”
Community leaders had come up with a proposal last year for a program called the Compassionate Alternate Response Team, or CART, which would have used trained civilians to work through 911 and 311 calls about homelessness. When Breed came forward with only the Street Crisis Response Team, advocates in support of CART claimed these groups didn’t go far enough because their narrow scope only addressed behavioral health crises. The Street Wellness Response Teams, scheduled to start later this year, widen that scope.
Community activists like Jania Marsean, a Mission High School student who organized an anti-hate rally the weekend after the George Floyd verdict was announced, are supportive of the response teams but hesitant to consider them a complete solution. “I think it’s a good idea, but I also think it’ll be a big adjustment for the city and smaller neighborhoods like mine and my friends to adapt to,” she says. “I wonder what the outcome will continue to be like.”
The San Francisco Police Officers Association is supportive of the new response team.
“Too often a 9-1-1 call generates a police response when it makes perfect sense to send a mental health clinician, a paramedic, or a social worker” said SFPOA President Tony Montoya. “As we’ve seen repeatedly, however, given the conditions in areas like the Tenderloin, a mental health crisis can turn into a violent attack at a moment’s notice. We believe our elected and appointed leaders need to approach this transition with caution to ensure everyone is safe.”
Since 2015, approximately one in four people killed by the police had known mental illness, according to an analysis of police shooting data published by the Washington Post.