California Forum

Police cannot be the last line of defense for mental illness. Here are some solutions

A man stood in the middle of a busy midtown Sacramento intersection just before 3 p.m. on Sunday, April 28, firing shots from a pistol into the air. He had just called Sacramento police to say he was going to kill himself.

The situation could easily have ended in tragedy, but the officers were able to de-escalate the situation and talk the 29-year-old man into peacefully surrendering. The outcome was a credit to the professionalism of the officers and their use of crisis intervention techniques.

Every day and every night, Sacramento police are called upon to deal with people experiencing acute mental health distress because there is nobody else to do the job. The Sacramento Police Department received 10,999 mental health-related calls for service last year, 1,000 more than in 2017.

This year, the numbers are even higher, with an average of 34 calls every day. And in two separate incidents in May, major freeways in the Sacramento region had to be shut down for hours as officers worked to calm a man who threatened to throw himself off an overpass and another who crashed his car and threatened to shoot himself. Both crises ended without incident.


Our police department has responded to the growing catastrophe in a number of substantive ways. All officers and academy graduates, as well as select dispatch personnel, have now taken 40 hours of crisis intervention training, an effort enhanced by a collaborative relationship with the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ local chapter.

Last year, the department also created a dedicated mental health unit, which includes a full-time sergeant and a mobile crisis response team comprised of a police officer, a licensed county behavioral health professional (funded by the voter-approved Mental Health Services Act of 2004), a peer navigator and a licensed social worker. They coordinate with other public agencies and community organizations to connect people with mental health services.

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Darrell Steinberg

Too many people in Sacramento, and throughout California, are not receiving adequate mental health treatment and support. Many of them are homeless and living on our streets, under freeway overpasses or on riverbanks. Many of them have co-occurring mental illness and substance abuse disorders. Their presence poses a risk to themselves, the public and our officers.

Studies have repeatedly shown that a high proportion of people killed in police shootings were people living with mental health problems. Almost 40 percent of officer shootings in Santa Clara County between 2013 and 2017, for example, involved someone who was mentally ill, the San Jose Mercury News reported last year. The Sacramento region has its own sad history in this regard.

It stands to reason that if people with mental disorders got treatment and did not experience crisis requiring police intervention, there would be less potential for tragic outcomes.

But as the situation stands today, California lacks places where police can take people in crisis. Officers typically face two choices: jail or hospital emergency rooms. These are costly, short-term and ineffective solutions. Often, they wind up taking the same people into custody over and over – with no real solution in sight.

Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn.

Change on a variety of fronts is needed to both improve care for those suffering from mental illness and reduce the disproportionate burden that now falls on agencies like our police department. As leaders, we are focused on advocating for these priorities on the state and local level:

  • More short- and long-term treatment beds, shelters and permanent housing options for homeless people with mental illness, substance use disorder, or both

  • A non-law enforcement response system to divert people in crisis

  • Expanded mental health and drug court programs

  • A reexamination of rules for holding people beyond 72 hours and putting them into conservatorships

  • Record sharing by police, emergency medical responders, hospitals, social services, housing and child welfare agencies

  • Compliance by private insurers with federal law requiring equal coverage for mental and other ailments

  • Aggressive outreach to connect the most medically fragile homeless people with health services, including mental health treatment and substance abuse treatment.

What we need now is bold state leadership. We applaud the moves Gov. Gavin Newsom has made so far to elevate the visibility of mental health as an issue and to invest in helping our state’s most vulnerable residents.

This crisis is not going away. It will take a focused, sustained, collaborative approach from both the public and private sectors to reduce the burden that we unrealistically expect our police officers to carry when it comes to people with untreated mental illness.

Working together with our federal, state and local partners, we’re confident California can build a health care system that treats the mental health of its residents with urgency and compassion.

Darrel Steinberg is the mayor of Sacramento. Daniel Hahn is the police chief of the Sacramento Police Department.