Six years ago, William Raff died after a tragic encounter with police on Christmas night. When Palo Alto police officers responding to a 911 call from the 31-year-old mentally ill man arrived, they were immediately attacked with what was later discovered to be a butter knife.
Raff's death underscores the sad reality that too often, a call for help ends in tragedy when police respond to find a person in a mental health crisis holding a weapon. The Raff case — and others like it — raises a question: When is it appropriate to dispatch only armed police officers to mental health emergencies — and when is it not?
Of late, this question has been top of mind for city leaders in Palo Alto. Motivated by national events over the last two years, the City Council and Police Department spent time last summer reviewing police procedures, use of force, and alternative models to dispatching armed officers to certain types of mental health crisis calls.
It's an issue the county of Santa Clara has been working to address for some time. Two years ago, the county launched its Psychiatric Emergency Response Team (PERT), a crisis intervention model which pairs a licensed mental health clinician with a law enforcement officer to respond to calls involving people in acute mental health crises. The program has proven to be an effective tool for our county Sheriff's Department, and we're delighted to say the Palo Alto Police Department is the second law enforcement agency (and first city) in the county to launch a PERT team.
Southern California — where the program was first implemented — has already demonstrated that PERT works. It's no surprise. We ask law enforcement to take on a lot of our community's challenges. Some of these challenges, however, are better met by folks whose training is in the behavioral health arena.
The public benefits from this approach because responders will be appropriately trained mental health specialists. Law enforcement benefits because officers aren't put in situations beyond the scope of their training and expertise.
The Palo Alto PERT team (a police officer and a mental health clinician) work in tandem on cases involving a mental health crisis, combining their unique skill sets, training and expertise to troubleshoot situations rife with uncertainty. The clinician has access to the county mental health system, which means they'll be able to, for example, determine if the individual experiencing a mental health crisis has been seen before.
If so, the clinician can look up information about the individual's clinical diagnosis, their treating physician, and level of medication they've been prescribed — information law enforcement wouldn't otherwise have at their disposal. Providing the best care for a peaceful resolution begins with understanding the individual in crisis, with the added benefit of having an officer there as a safety measure.
The goal, of course, is not to issue mental health "holds"; it's to see how many community members we can safely and appropriately divert from the system. We want to keep people out of the hospital and out of jail, if possible. We want to look for opportunities to de-escalate and identify alternatives and resources before considering something potentially more restrictive.
When they're not responding to calls, PERT staff also reach out to folks who are homeless because, unfortunately, a significant proportion of our unhoused population do have mental health conditions and don't always get the help they need when a uniformed police officer shows up.
A clinician and officer — working in plainclothes — walk through parking garages, down alleyways and through downtown and other areas of the city where we know unhoused members of our community are found and get to know them, build rapport with them and try to make inroads in a way that a uniformed officer might not be able to do.
We need to be smart about who we send out to deal with people in crisis. If there's a bank robbery in progress, we certainly wouldn't send a social worker. Similarly, if a person is having a mental health episode, it may not make sense to send only an armed officer who may not have the training and depth of expertise to navigate a mental health crisis.
Our local police officers can handle a lot of things, but they're not social workers or mental health specialists.
Simply put, there have been too many avoidable tragedies here in our city, our county and across the country. Having the appropriate resources available, and investing in de-escalation efforts when there's a crisis, is really the key to preventing future tragedies — and getting a vulnerable population the help it deserves.
Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian serves as chair of the county's Health and Hospital Committee. Palo Alto City Council member Tom DuBois served as mayor in 2021. Email them at [email protected] and [email protected]