Peninsula cities team up on plan to include counselors in emergency response

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Hoping to reduce the number of police shootings, three Peninsula cities are partnering with Stanford University on a plan to dispatch crisis counselors on volatile police calls.

San Mateo, South San Francisco and Redwood City have signed on to the plan. Counselors will be employed by the San Mateo County health department and embed within the city’s police departments.

It is an acknowledgement that some disturbances call for a counselor, not a cop.

“I mean anybody with a heart... It’s agonizing to see things that have been going on,” said Melissa Stevenson-Diaz, city manager of Redwood City. “Nobody feels great about that, and so if there’s some better way we can help people, we can slow things down.”

The plan is modest to start. Three or four counselors will be employed full-time and shared between the three cities and will not be able to provide 24/7 coverage.

“We are hopeful that that will allow somebody to be embedded within our individual police departments, be able to respond with officers on a call,” when police are called to respond to people in crisis or severely mentally ill, said Stevenson-Diaz.

“Not only having the clinicians be there at a call to help, assess what’s going on and to help make sure the best possible response is given, it also then means that after the call is done and the situation and folks are stabilized, that there are people that have access to the records and treatment and ability to have the person in crisis get the help they need,” she said.

Many police shootings happen within seconds of officers arriving on scene. Stevenson-Diaz says the hope is that counselors will be able to de-escalate.

Activists have long called for non-police personnel to respond to calls involving the mentally ill.

A Redwood city police officer was cleared in the shooting death of a mentally ill man with a knife last year. The victim was a Palo Alto middle school teacher, and his widow has been working with the city ever since on police reforms.