San Rafael’s decision to deploy a specialized crisis unit to handle emergencies involving the mentally ill and homeless is a wise move that relieves law enforcement officers and firefighters from the challenges of these difficult dilemmas.
The city council approved hiring a crisis response team — the nonprofit Petaluma People Services Center — for a three-year pilot program at a cost of no more than $775,000 per year.
That’s a large sum, but a much wiser investment of taxpayers’ money given how much it costs to have cops and firefighters handle these cases.
From a staffing perspective, not only does it cost a lot more, but the time these cases take can distract responders from other calls and tasks.
City officials estimate that this could mean about 4,000 emergency calls a year.
The county has a mobile crisis response team, but the city’s contract would focus on cases in San Rafael — a service that will require full-time staff, including crisis intervention specialists and paramedics. The team would have a bilingual member on each shift.
His duties would include not only emergency response but also follow-up services, particularly when handling calls from the homeless.
The pilot also addresses the need to increase social services as a peacekeeping strategy.
For now, the city will tap into money it receives from the Federal American Rescue Plan Act and funds it paid as its share of the Marin County Major Crimes Task Force, which was disbanded in 2020.
The council should regularly review the work and success of the team to determine whether changes in staffing or working hours are needed.
“As outlined in the concept, this alternative response resource is intended to provide services and support to vulnerable populations in our community,” said San Rafael Police Chief Todd Berringer, the program’s city hall manager.
Such cases account for about 8% of the 911 calls the city receives.
Getting these cases quickly into the hands of experienced mental health teams and trained crisis intervention teams is key, not only to reducing the number of repeat calls but, more importantly, to getting those who need help to the treatment and support they need.
If this intervention can help keep people out of jail and trouble, that would be a plus for taxpayers, too.
For many years, the responsibilities of providing mental health and social services programs were the responsibility of the county, which received state and federal funding for this role.
But the need for local services has grown beyond the level the county offers.
One example is the significant costs the cities of San Rafael, Novato, and Sausalito incur in dealing with homeless camps.
San Rafael’s new program should bring it into line for county, state and federal funding. The Biden administration has made crisis intervention a budget priority.
The ultimate goal is to provide rapid and effective intervention to those facing such crises, the community and city police officers and firefighters who have shouldered the surge in these calls.