SJPD say dramatic rescue of homeless man from fire highlights need for mental-health training

San Jose police officers are speaking out today about last week's dramatic rescue of a homeless man from a fire. They say it highlights the importance of mental health training for officers and the importance of serving all segments of the community.

In this case, officers say they had a real challenge trying to save the life of someone who apparently didn't want to be saved.

Police tried to warn the man that his van, likely his primary home, was on fire. Officers had responded after a call from the Montessori school where he was parked.

"We saw smoke. By the time we were processing that, it was flames. By the time we were processing that, it was a rescue," said Officer Tim Wright.

A rescue of an unwilling subject: the man wouldn't budge. In fact, he held on to the van with all his might.

Meanwhile, the flames grew, and officers could hear popping sounds coming from inside.

"This is the first time I've dealt with somebody who refused to help save their own life. So we were just pulling as hard as we can to get him away from there," said Officer Chris Perilli.

They believed he was in the middle of a mental health crisis and it was at that point that the officers made a snap decision: they would taser him, to get him to release his grip on the van.

"That's not how we intended this but it was the only way that we thought we were going to save his life and our safety. I don't know that I've ever been that close to a fire," Officer Wright said. 

An image taken from the officer's body-worn camera shows the moment officers dragged him to safety.
A moment later, the van exploded.

"It buckled the roof, it blew all the windows out," Perilli said.

As it turns out, the van had been full of propane, spray paint, and fuel cans. Officers say it was lucky, they pulled the man out when they did. He was taken to the hospital with burns to his arm, singed hair, and smoke inhalation. He was distraught, but alive. 

San Jose Police say they're trained to handle mental health issues, but that nothing could have prepared them for this.

Wright says, "We actually do serve them every day. This one was a little more graphic than maybe some others."

The officers aren't sure whether the man set the fire himself, but they're hopeful he'll be able to get the help he needs.

Perilli says, "Everyone we deal with mental health issues is different. Sometimes reasoning with them works and sometimes it doesn't. And we try to get them the help that they deserve. And this time it worked out."

One of the officers did suffer very minor burns during the rescue. The van also caught a nearby tree on fire. But firefighters got that under control before it spread.