REDWOOD CITY, Calif. - A new pilot program in San Mateo County is pairing police with mental health specialists to help respond to calls involving mental health crises.
"I've been to some of the schools, some houses and some businesses," said Briana Fair, the San Mateo Police Crisis Response Clinician who started work Monday and already had responded to multiple calls.
"I've sat in dispatch, I've done ride-alongs with officers so I kind of know the calls they're getting throughout the day. I have a radio on me on duty so I'm hearing all the calls coming in," said Fair, a social worker and mental health specialist who joined San Mateo Police this week as a Crisis Response Clinician.
San Mateo County's new program is being rolled out in the four largest cities: San Mateo, Daly City, Redwood City and South San Francisco to help police better respond to people in mental health crises.
"I think it can help the community overall because we don't have by not having police do a million different jobs," said Fair, "Having them take on that role of mental health clinician without years of training just seems unfair really."
"This is huge. This is a big step forward," said Officer Alison Gilmore, the public information officer for San Mateo Police Department.
Gilmore says police get calls to respond to mental health crises daily.
"Our officers are not mental health experts. So it is great to have someone who is specifically trained in mental and behavioral health to be able to help those who are experiencing a crisis, who may not necessarily be comfortable around a police officer," said Gilmore.
San Mateo County says about 50% of people booked into local jails have a mental health condition.
Nationwide, according to NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, about 2 million people with mental illness are booked into jails every year.
"There are more than 300 diagnoses of mental illness," said Carol Gosho who heads the San Mateo branch of NAMI. Gosho says people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and severe depression, often end up with people getting arrested instead of getting treatment.
"That's where the difficulty begins where they may end up with a criminal record and instead of going to a hospital, they're taken to jail," said Gosho.
The pilot project will cost San Mateo County about $1.5 million dollars over two years. Some residents think it's money well spent..
"I do think it could be good use of funds especially if it helps a lot of people. A lot of really mentally troubled people resort to crimes and having a specialist there could help deescalate the situation," said Denis Ashim of Belmont.
A team from Stanford University is scheduled to evaluate the two-year pilot program. Police say if it is deemed successful, they hope to get more funding to get more mental health specialists to add to the team.
Jana Katsuyama is a reporter for KTVU. Email Jana at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @JanaKTVU or Facebook @NewsJana or ktvu.com.