SAN FRANCISCO - Before Thomas O’Bannon began an alleged bloody rampage through San Francisco’s Tenderloin earlier this year, he was being held in a hospital on an involuntary psychiatric hold, but was released after only a few hours, KTVU has learned.
The April 21 incident included a high-profile officer-involved shooting and an hours-long standoff that paralyzed the neighborhood already reeling from the growing coronavirus pandemic.
But revelations about O’Bannon’s medical treatment before his alleged spree of violence raises questions about the mental health care system in a city with so many people in crisis on the streets.
“It’s terrifying,” said Supervisor Matt Haney, whose district includes the Tenderloin. “People who have deep mental illness – who have been 5150’d – should not be released back on the street without any sort of referral or oversight. In fact, it sounds like he definitely should have been kept longer.”
It began on the evening of April 20 when police got a call about a man inside the Aranda Residence at 64 Turk St. who was getting in altercations with residents and not observing social distancing rules, according to records obtained by KTVU.
Police arrived at the building around 7:15 p.m. where they found O’Bannon inside bleeding from the mouth, records show. O’Bannon allegedly told police “You’re going to have to kill me. You’re going to have to shoot me” as officers tried to detain him.
Police tried to place him in handcuffs and a struggle ensued. O’Bannon punched and fought with police as they restrained him, records show. Paramedics checked him out and police took him to St. Francis hospital where he was sedated.
Patients must be deemed a danger to themselves or others to qualify for a 5150 hold. O’Bannon was determined to be a danger to others, records show.
St. Francis is one of seven hospitals in the city that is designated to handle 5150 patients and has 24 beds for mental health cases, according to state records. Hospital officials would not comment on O’Bannon’s case, citing patient privacy laws.
Officials can hold patients up to 72 hours on a 5150 hold if they continue to be a danger to themselves or others. After 72 hours, officials can extend the hold if necessary.
But after being sedated, O’Bannon was apparently deemed to no longer be a threat and was released. Officials did not say what time he was cut loose. But at 5:30 the next morning – 10 hours after the first call to police – O’Bannon was back on the streets and resuming his alleged violent behavior.
Police officials described what happened next during a town hall meeting, which is department policy for officer-involved shootings. They did not mention O’Bannon’s earlier clash with police and the 5150 hold.
A man walking his dog on the 600 block of Post Street – five blocks from St. Francis – called police saying a man struck him in the face with a board multiple times. An hour later, at 6:36 a.m., staff at the Pierre Hotel at 540 Jones St. called 911.
Police body-worn camera footage and security video from the Pierre showed O’Bannon inside an enclosed office in the lobby. When police tried to apprehend him, he swung the board at them, pulled out a screwdriver and burst out a back door toward other officers on the street, officials said.
One officer discharged one shot during the melee but didn’t hit anybody. O’Bannon then fled to Glide Memorial Church where he was holed up for several hours before surrendering.
He was later arrested and charged with assault with a deadly weapon.
“I was glad nobody got hurt,” said Randy Shaw, executive director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic that operates the Pierre and more than 20 other buildings for formerly homeless residents. “It could have exploded in a far more negative way.”
The Tenderloin Housing Clinic does not operate the Aranda Residence where O’Bannon lives. It’s not clear why O'Bannon came inside the Pierre.
Shaw said he’s never seen that level of violence inside one of his buildings but is well aware of all the people in crisis every day across San Francisco.
“It raises a lot of questions for me about our 5150 program,” he said about revelations O’Bannon was released after only a few hours in the hospital. “I mean to me that’s very, very troubling.”
Supervisor Haney said the incident underscores the need for better mental health treatment for patients in San Francisco. Last year he helped pass Mental Health SF, legislation that is supposed to reimagine how the city deals with people in crisis. It includes plans to hire more outreach workers and provide more mental health beds.
“Unfortunately we have a situation at many of our hospitals where people are cycled in and out because they don’t have a bed for somebody,” he said.
City records show that last year, the Department of Emergency Mangement received more than 50,000 calls for service involving people in crisis. Of those calls, 658 were requesting 5150 holds.
The San Francisco Police Department placed 3,426 people on involuntary holds in 2019 when counting all calls for service, according to the department's data. That number does not include people placed on 5150 holds from other public safety organizations.
State records show that San Francisco has 187 beds at the seven hospitals equipped to handle mental health patients. That’s compared to 331 and 306 beds at hospitals in Alameda and Santa Clara counties respectively. Those counties, though, are each nearly twice the size of San Francisco.
The California Department of Public Health – the state agency that tracks county health data – said it does not have records on how long patients are held on involuntary psychiatric holds.
O’Bannon’s attorney, Deputy Public Defender Kathleen Natividad said many of the clients her office represents have mental health challenges and that “incarceration is not the appropriate response to a health crisis like this”.
“Right now, he has been incarcerated for quite some time when we know that it was the system that was broken that has put him there,” she said.
O’Bannon is due back in court in August. The people he’s accused of attacking have recovered.
Evan Sernoffsky is an investigative reporter for KTVU. Email Evan at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @EvanSernoffsky