Jacob Savage, a lifelong Palo Altan who signed up as a high school sophomore for the city's first police academy in 2006, now believes there can be a better way of responding to many delicate situations -- such as mental illness, substance abuse and homelessness -- than a direct police encounter.
During more than 50 police-cadet "ride-alongs" on 11-hour shifts, he said he witnessed many helpful responses by officers but also observed situations that were made worse, largely because the officers lacked training and techniques to de-escalate a tense encounter.
In a stark contrast, most officers get about two hours of training in how to respond in the complex world of human crises or distress compared to up to 130 hours in firearms training, Savage notes. This shocking imbalance is changing in some departments, such as in Palo Alto, where officers are encouraged to take a 40-hour crisis-intervention training program. About three quarters of the force has taken such training, far higher than other departments, Savage said.
"A lot of people argue that 40 hours isn't nearly enough training," he said, noting that social workers get many hundreds of hours of training with annual required updates.
He grew from a fledgling fan of police work to someone with growing concern and a desire to make things better.
"As I got older and started to study the bigger issues I started to notice that while the police can help in a lot of situations -- not to blame the police -- but the structure is geared for perpetuating and criminalizing individuals with mental health issues," including substance abuse and homelessness.
"There's a group of people that are constantly in and out of jail, in and out of hospitals and with involuntary detentions" who are often not well-served by police encounters, and there's a substantial cost to society for such "revolving door" cases, he said.
Savage and a friend, Doug Marks of Oakland, teamed up to try to do something positive rather than simply criticize present practices.
They have a website and a smartphone app (concrn.com and the Concrn app) and came up with a descriptive name for their start-up effort: "Compassionate Response Network." They also chose a trendy-looking one-word brand: "Concrn." Yes, without the "e."
Now, they're training an on-the-ground response team, an alternative to the police.
Savage said a visit two years ago to Eugene, Oregon, convinced him not only that his and Mark's ideas were achievable and practical but that they are essential in a caring community.
In Eugene, two vans respond to difficult situations under a volunteer-response program with a decidedly old-West ring: CAHOOTS, for Crisis-Assistance Helping Out on the Streets.
"They respond to homelessness issues, people in verbal altercations, people with underlying mental-health issues. In any other city, law enforcement, or fire and paramedics, would often handle these calls," Savage said of the 25-year-old program that is operated by the nonprofit Whitebread Clinic.
"They do something like 10,000 calls per year, in a city of about 120,000, which is a huge amount. The fact that they are able to divert law enforcement resources, to prevent incarceration, to prevent hospitalization, just kind of saves everybody. And it gives people a chance to get back up on their feet."
Concrn is set up as a for-profit organization so it can receive investments, while donations can be made to support the program through the long-established Youth Community Service (YCS) nonprofit based in Palo Alto, under the leadership of Leif Erickson. The Palo Alto Medical Foundation has provided a grant to fund the writing of the curriculum, Savage said.
The 100 hours of training will be taught by a faculty with a broad range of experience and credentials. The pilot project will launch in two locations: Palo Alto and San Francisco's Tenderloin.
"The Palo Alto training will be geared toward homelessness and youth mental health, and in the Tenderloin it will be geared toward issues of homelessness and substance abuse," Savage explained.
A preview training session was held Aug. 12 in East Palo Alto, with a half dozen members of YCS attending.
The session, led by Lakiba Pittman, a former member of the Palo Alto Human Relations Commission, focused on developing self-monitoring abilities, listening skills and the power of meditation to help oneself and others de-escalate tension or anger.
After attendees recounted personal encounters, Savage encouraged them to "imagine yourself" in a street situation, "but this time you are a police officer, and you have a gun. It's scary what you can do."
But if people can acknowledge whatever biases or judgments they have about others, they can more easily master their reactions, he said.
"We all have bias and judgment toward genders, toward race, toward age, toward people in various professions. And I think it's important not to deny that those are natural feelings, natural judgments that you have. Rather, let 'em surface, and then let 'em go, (and) that will help you get through the day."
The faculty includes Pittman, who has worked at and taught diversity best practices at Stanford University, Menlo College and Notre Dame de Namur University.
Others include Hilary Roberts, a 30-year teacher who developed a "peer advocates" program at Fremont Union High School District and earlier in New York; Jason Albertson, LCSW, a social worker who managed street outreach for the homeless in San Francisco and created the PERT (for Psychiatric Emergency Response Team) program in San Mateo County; and Erik Milosovich of the Santa Monica Police Department, a "cop's cop" and former combat instructor who now practices yoga/meditation, nicknamed "Yoga Cop."
A formidable team for a formidable challenge.
Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org. He also writes periodic blogs at PaloAltoOnline.com.