It’s a sunny afternoon in San Francisco, and an agitated woman is screaming in the middle of the street, urgently pleading for help rescuing her daughter and granddaughter from a locked building on the corner of a busy intersection. She’s stopping traffic; saying she’s convinced they are going to die.
Behavioral health clinician Shari Lachin sees her and within seconds approaches the woman in distress, immediately engaging with her and attempting to deescalate the situation.
“Ma’am, let’s get out of the street and get safe,” Lachin says in a sweet, calming voice. “This must be so scary for you. We’re here now and we’re going to try and figure this out to help support you.”
When the woman says she’s hungry, Lachin’s colleague brings her a meal from McDonald’s. A quick diagnostic assessment confirms she’s suffering from psychotic delusions — including this particular one about her family being trapped.
Soon, they’re assisting her into the back of their van, and within 45 minutes she’s voluntarily checking herself into a psychiatric urgent care facility.
It is a successful ending to an episode that could have concluded much differently.
Street Crisis Response Team is launched
For the members of San Francisco’s Street Crisis Response Team, this is just another day at the office.
Lachin, a trained social worker, is joined on each shift by both a paramedic and a peer counselor. The mobile three-person response team is part of a joint collaboration between the San Francisco Fire Department and the city’s Department of Health.
The pilot program began on Nov. 30, 2020. They currently have two teams operating, from 7 a.m, until 9 p.m. every day – aiming for an expansion to 24/7 teams dispatched across the city by early summer.
For years, residents have been calling on the city to find meaningful solutions to rampant problems with homelessness and substance use disorder. In 2019, the city counted over 8,000 homeless people living in San Francisco. However, advocates say the actual number is likely much higher; surging since the start of the pandemic.
“We really want to reduce or eliminate law enforcement from going to non-violent calls or behavioral or social crises in which no crime has taken place,” said San Francisco Fire Department section Chief Simon Pang, who is leading this effort. “We’ve wanted to stand up a unit like this for some time, but with the events during the summer of 2020 things really reached a tipping point and city leadership decided it was time to get this done.”
Since the death of George Floyd, one of the fundamental rallying cries — to defund the police — centers on reallocating money away from law enforcement and into social programs promoting mental health treatment and crisis prevention.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed proposed allocating $4 million out of the city budget’s General Fund to create the pilot program. The money was not taken from the police budget.
The unit has responded to over 800 calls thus far.
A grandmother seeks justice
Across the Bay Bridge in Oakland, grandmother Addie Kitchen is being comforted by her friends and family outside a county courthouse, moments before heading inside to fight for justice in the death of her grandson Steven Taylor.
Taylor, 33, was shot and killed by a San Leandro police officer inside a Walmart on April 18, 2020.
Based on eyewitness accounts, Kitchen says she believes her grandson, a father of three, was suffering a mental health crisis during the deadly altercation.
Kitchen told CNN that in 2019 her grandson was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and bipolar depression. He was also homeless at the time of the incident.
She said he’d still be alive today if a crisis response team had responded instead of police.
“He was sentenced to death as soon as that officer walked in,” Kitchen said. “You mean to tell me to be Black and have a mental crisis is a death penalty?”
Bodycam video footage shows the moment San Leandro Police Officer Jason Fletcher, who is White, walked into the store and confronted Taylor, who was waving a baseball bat in the air; seemingly in a state of distress.
Within 40 seconds, Fletcher, 49, delivered one fatal shot into Taylor’s chest, according to the District Attorney’s office. He’s now charged with voluntary manslaughter.
“It was not reasonable to conclude Mr. Taylor posed an imminent threat of death or great bodily injury to Officer Fletcher or to anyone else in the store,” District Attorney of Alameda County Nancy O’Malley said in a statement.
O’Malley brought these charges under a newly strengthened California law that says police can only use deadly force only when needed to defend human life.
Fletcher has pleaded not guilty.
In a statement to CNN, Fletcher’s attorney Michael Rains said the officer feared for his life. Rains said Fletcher fired his weapon after giving “seven clear and non-threatening requests for Mr. Taylor to drop the bat,” and after two attempts to incapacitate him with a stun gun failed.
Kitchen says she never thought she’d become an activist on behalf of police reform. A retired law enforcement officer herself, she spent 30 years as a corrections officer at California’s San Quentin State Prison. These days, she regularly communicates with the families of other people who have been killed in confrontations with police.
“What I’d like to accomplish is to keep people of color from being murdered because they’re going through a mental health crisis,” she said. “It should not be a death sentence.”
‘There is a big danger in calling 911’
Stacy Torres, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, San Francisco, said it’s imperative for communities around the country to go further in adopting effective non-police, medically informed responses to mental health emergencies.
“There is a big danger in calling 911,” Torres said. “So many people are losing their lives. And you think about the trickle effect of that, down to all sorts of family members who have to deal with this devastation.”
The concept of relying on police only when they’re absolutely needed has been gaining traction across the country, with San Francisco being the first big city to actually launch its own unit. They’re hoping to model a decades-old program in Eugene, Oregon called CAHOOTS, short for Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets. The program dispatches unarmed responders to crises that are neither violent nor criminal.
Torres sees these new approaches like San Francisco’s Street Crisis Response Team as an important step in the right direction.
“Police are not social workers. They are not psychiatrists. They are not medical doctors,” she said. “Right now they’re burdened with a multiplicity of tasks in which they are not trained, and that’s very difficult.”
Officers who respond to mental health crises should be trained to try and communicate with the person in crisis or nearby community and family members, says Seth Stoughton, a former law enforcement officer and associate professor of law at the University of South Carolina.
“Very few” mental health calls actually involve violence, Stoughton said. “Most of them are entirely capable of being resolved through non-violent means.”
‘This is a sad way to meet people’
There’s a growing number of Americans — particularly those who are Black or brown — whose mental health crises have led to deadly encounters with the police.
Just hours after sitting in court to seek justice for her grandson, Kitchen is heading to a candlelit vigil in nearby Antioch, California, for Angelo Quinto, a Filipino Navy veteran who died after a confrontation with police on Dec. 23, 2020.
The family of Quinto, 30, recently made a wrongful death claim against the city of Antioch, saying police officers kneeled on the back of his neck for nearly five minutes in an effort to subdue him inside their home. The family’s lawyer said they initially called 911 to help Quinto, who had been suffering from anxiety, depression, and paranoia. He died in the hospital three days later.
In a press conference last month, Antioch Police Chief Tammany Brooks refuted the family’s claims that police use of force led to Quinto’s death.
“At no point did any officer use a knee, or other body parts to gain leverage or apply pressure to Angelo’s head, neck, or throat, which is outside of our police and training,” Brooks said, adding, “at one point during the handcuffing, an officer did briefly — for a few seconds — have a knee across the back of Angelo’s shoulder blade.”
Brooks also said autopsy results fully examined Quinto’s neck and did not find evidence of strangulation or crushed airways.
CNN reached out to the city of Antioch for comment but did not hear back.
While the investigation into his death is ongoing, Quinto’s family organized a memorial on March 10 to commemorate what would be his 31st birthday. His grieving mother invited Kitchen to address the gathering.
“This is a sad way to meet people, but we’re family now,” Kitchen said. “Get your community together. Don’t let them forget who you are. Go to every single city council meeting, because if you don’t, they will forget. But we won’t forget.”
CNN’s Lamar Salter contributed to this report.