San Jose PD, city leaders respond to investigation on use of force and mentally impaired people
Union President Steve Slack said officers are “doing an exemplary job in improving mental health call outcomes and no amount of cherry-picking data can take away from that fact”
By Robert Salonga
Bay Area News Group
SAN JOSE, Calif. — In response to a Bay Area News Group investigation finding that mentally impaired people disproportionately experience serious force by San Jose police, city leaders defended police training, and blamed broader failures in mental health services and a lack of viable alternatives that could shift the burden of dealing with people in crisis away from police.
The first-of-its-kind investigation, which examined more than 100 use-of-force cases in San Jose between 2014 and 2021, found that in nearly three-quarters of incidents in which officers seriously injured or killed people, those harmed were believed to be mentally ill or intoxicated. Of the 25 fatal cases during that period, 80 percent involved people with those conditions.
The Oct. 8 report also found that though SJPD has mandated crisis-intervention training for all officers since 2017 — becoming the first major U.S. police department to do so — the percentage of those seriously injured by police who are mentally impaired has actually risen.
Mayor Matt Mahan said the news investigation affirmed the unfair expectations placed on police officers.
“Our jails should not be mental health hospitals and our police officers should not be forced to play the role of trained clinicians,” Mahan told this news organization. “While we strive to continuously improve our training programs, especially related to an issue as complex as mental illness, I want to make clear that the failure of California’s mental health system has put our officers in an untenable position.”
But Raj Jayadev, co-founder of the civil-rights group Silicon Valley De-Bug, said the news investigation “confirmed through data and empirical evidence what we have known anecdotally from people who have come through our doors.”
“The most vulnerable populations in the city are the most targeted and more likely to be on the receiving end of force,” Jayadev said in an interview. “People who are homeless and people on the streets because of their mental-health issues and because of substance use.”
He added that the report’s findings have an added resonance because it published as the city seeks to grow its police force and commit resources to keeping certain repeat offenders in jail — a policy Jayadev argued would only perpetuate over-policing of these populations.
“At a time when you have a report showing that people with these issues have a higher likelihood of being killed or being a recipient of (police) violence, the city is investing in more police contact with these people,” Jayadev said.
In an op-ed published by this news organization, Police Chief Anthony Mata challenged the report’s focus on serious use-of-force cases, reiterating the department’s claim that as the number of calls involving mental health crises has sharply risen in recent years, the overall rate of cases involving force has declined, including among cases involving mental health crises.
He said that since the adoption of mandatory crisis training in 2017, use of force in incidents that end in an involuntary mental health hold — colloquially known as a 5150 case — has decreased by 91%, and that force involving any level of psychiatric crisis dropped by 22%.
“Even though mental health calls have increased significantly since 2014, increasing the potential number of cases that could end with violent encounters, use of force in these cases is dropping,” Mata wrote.
However, the figures Mata and the department have cited are limited to instances in which police were called specifically to respond to a person suffering a mental crisis — cases, in other words, where police knew what they were getting into. They do not include situations where police themselves initiated contact with a person whom they presumed to be mentally ill or intoxicated, or where the person’s mental state was not known until after police arrived at the scene.
The San Jose Police Officers’ Association echoed Mata’s criticisms about the slice of cases analyzed in the news report, which was limited to those resulting in significant injury or death – the only cases whose release is required by law. Police are allowed but not required to release cases in which they deem their use of force to have caused minor or no injuries, and San Jose in general does not release them.
The union also took issue with the news investigation’s decision to evaluate cases of apparent mental illness and severe intoxication together — a methodology that was based on a determination that erratic behavior in both scenarios often presents it similarly, and in both cases tend to involve people in crisis.
Officers, union president Steve Slack said in a statement, are “doing an exemplary job in improving mental health call outcomes and no amount of cherry-picking data can take away from that fact.”
Both Mahan and Mata pointed to a need for alternative response models to offload mental health emergencies from police responses, and the chief wrote there still is no workable substitute for an officer response to a mental-health call that involves a serious public safety threat.
Though Mata nodded to community-led programs and hybrid response models that pair clinicians with police officers, he noted that “they have not materialized at scale, and officers often remain the social workers of last resort,” and lauded his department’s work in that circumstance.
“I won’t label it a success, but I will present it as proof of progress,” the chief wrote.
Jayadev, whose organization is helping support civilian-led response models currently being tested in the county, agrees with the need for an overarching shift in how the government handles mentally impaired people but sees conflicting messaging.
“You can’t have it both ways,” he said. “You can’t say police should not be the responders to what is a public health issue, and also double down in investments to increase those police contacts.”
Staff writer Gabriel Greschler contributed to this report.