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San Antonio Crisis Response: Systemic Failure or One-Off Mistake?

Murder charges against three San Antonio police officers for the shooting death last month of a mentally disturbed woman at her home have not resolved underlying questions about the resources needed to change how mental health crises are handled, the New York Times reports. Although the police department has a mental health unit trained to handle such cases and available around the clock, none of its officers were available to be dispatched to the home of Melissa Perez, 46, who barricaded herself inside her home when confronted by police. Officers shot her when she swung a hammer at them. William McManus, the chief of the San Antonio Police Department, said Ms. Perez’s death was the result of the officers’ failure to follow procedure — not a sign of systemic problems. “The Mental Health Unit was not called. It should have been,” Chief McManus said.

The department's mental health unit, formed in 2008 and now staffed by 20 sworn members, only handles a small fraction of all calls for mental health issues. Since its inception, the department has received national recognition for its work from organizations including the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The National League of Cities published a report about San Antonio’s Mental Health Unit, using it as an example for other cities to model and citing the success of its crisis response. But Edward Piña, the former president of the San Antonio branch of the A.C.L.U., said officers had told him on numerous occasions that calling in the Mental Health Unit was “not policing.” “For as long as I’ve been practicing law, which is over 35 years, they’ve had a problem in dealing with persons that are exhibiting psychiatric symptoms,” he said. San Antonio also has a year-old program that sends a mental health clinician and a paramedic — in addition to a police officer — to respond to mental health 911 calls made within its specific service area. Perez’s family has filed a lawsuit against the city and the three officers, saying officers could see she was experiencing a mental health crisis that night and that routine records checks by officers determined she had a history of mental illness and had been taken into protective police custody before. But a mental health officer was still not dispatched to the scene. The lawsuit cites other cases in which, the suit asserts, San Antonio officers were sent to calls involving mental health concerns and the Mental Health Unit either was never summoned or did not respond.


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