Officers in the San Antonio Police Department’s mental health unit are being moved to non-mental health call assignments, such as answering intelligence-gathering calls from the Southwest Texas Fusion Center and training other police officers.
Doug Beach, president of the San Antonio chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said the diversion comes seven months after Melissa Perez was killed by a SAPD officer during a mental health crisis is unacceptable and the MHU field staff only has 16 officers.
“We’ve taken people who are trained to do mental health calls in the field, mental health officers, we put them into training mode, put them into fusion center calls, and then they’re used as backup for patrol units,” Beach said. “I believe very clearly that what happened to Melissa Perez was a direct result of the mental health team not being dispatched. “
Two former police officers have been indicted on murder charges in Perez’s death.
A SAPD spokesperson acknowledged that MHU officers are used to responding to calls at the fusion center and training other officers, but said they also respond directly to mental health calls and support patrol officers in responding to those calls.
Beach said it doesn’t work for MHU officers to serve as backup for patrol officers, who often end up escalating interactions even if they handle the situation with empathy.
“What we saw with Melissa Perez, and I’m afraid there are too many other instances, people keep reporting to us, [is] When the patrol comes out, the way they’re treated – again with a marked car, a uniformed person with a gun – it escalates the situation and a lot of times, it doesn’t end well,” he said .
In June, three SAPD officers were charged with murder after shooting Melissa Perez to death in her apartment. Perez suffered from schizophrenia; now, families of other people with serious mental illnesses fear their loved ones are also at risk.
Beach said family members told him those often result in arrests. Families who spoke to TPR after Perez’s death last year said they had horrific experiences on patrol, including violence against themselves and their loved ones by SAPD officers.
MHU officers undergo rigorous training and are specifically selected for roles based on psychological assessments, looking for individuals with high levels of empathy and balanced temperaments. Beach and families who spoke with TPR said MHU officials provide excellent support services, some of whom develop deep relationships with the residents they serve. The problem, as they see it, is that there aren’t enough of them.
“I asked why we couldn’t use some of the funding for 100 new officers, why some of them couldn’t be mental health officers, and I didn’t get a good answer. I really didn’t get a response,” Beach said. “Our system doesn’t have the ability to send out the right people to do the job. We send out patrol officers.”
San Antonio’s 2024 budget includes funding to hire 105 uniformed police officers. The budget also includes funding to expand SA Core Team services to 24/7; these units handle mental health calls and consist of a specially trained police officer, a paramedic and a licensed clinician.
Beach said the $7.2 million expansion of SA’s core team included in the 2024 budget falls far short of meeting San Antonio’s needs.
“They’re way behind the curve,” he said. “We can provide people and services at a rate they will never be able to match.”
While it would be nice for the city to have enough staff to handle every mental health call, San Antonio is nowhere near having designated units answer half of all calls, he said. He said it would be a goal worth pursuing.
“Maybe we can’t handle all of these issues, but we can certainly do better than we do today,” Beach said.