San Rafael police launch mobile response team to help with homelessness, mental health calls

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ByLiz Kreutz KGO logo
Thursday, April 6, 2023
San Rafael police launch mobile crisis response program
San Rafael police has launched a mobile response program SAFE to help respond to with homelessness and mental illness calls.

SAN RAFAEL, Calif. (KGO) -- A new mobile crisis response program has launched in San Rafael.

The SAFE (Specialized Assistance For Everyone) program will provide an alternative response to police to some low-level emergency calls.

The idea is that instead of police responding to calls dealing with mental illness and homelessness, now a two-person crisis response team will.

"I think that traditionally first responders have been police, fire and medical, and maybe we were missing something there," San Rafael PD Officer Jennifer Gamble told ABC7 News. "And so we're hoping the SAFE team is the fourth tenant of that, and so they can intervene on those types of calls, so the community feels like they are being addressed."

MORE: San Francisco launches street crisis team to respond to 911 mental health, addiction calls

Officer Gamble is working as a liaison to integrate SAFE into the police department.

"Sometimes we do need a lower level response where people are talking just person to person and they're having some kind of crisis, but they don't necessarily require police assistance for that, and there isn't necessarily a crime related to it," she explained. "Maybe intoxicated subjects, or unhoused people sleeping in doorways and the reporting party wants people moved along, all the way to people have a transitional or mental health crisis at home and they need to talk to someone."

ABC7 News tagged along with Priscilla Ferreira and Juan Hernandez -- two of SAFE's crisis interventionists on Wednesday morning.

One of their first calls of the day was for a mental health call at San Rafael's City Hall. The situation, however, escalated and police stepped in to intervene.

MORE: Oakland launches civilian crisis response team to handle nonviolent mental health calls

"It became evident that this particular subject was going to need a higher level of intervention that police can respond to," Gamble said.

Later in the morning, the team visited a homeless encampment in San Rafael where they introduced themselves to residents. They also offered folks food, water and other resources, including a bus pass and clothing.

"We operate under 911 now, so if anyone contacts police for you guys, instead, the SAFE team will come," Ferreira told some of the encampment residents. "And instead of getting you guys in trouble, we'll just come and see what you need."

The SAFE team would also respond to incidents like the one last year where a San Rafael police officer picked up a person dealing with a mental health crisis and brought him to a neighborhood in San Francisco. The police department says with the SAFE team, the response would have been different.

EXCLUSIVE: Video shows San Rafael officer dropping off homeless man in San Francisco

The video shows a San Rafael police officer dropping off a homeless man and his belongings in a residential area in San Francisco.

"We would call the SAFE team immediately," San Rafael PD Lt. Scott Eberle explained. "The SAFE team would be able to connect them to the resources they need, and transport them to the place they need to go, and free up the resources for police officers to do other things and handle more priority calls."

According to Gamble, San Rafael PD receives roughly 4,000 calls related to mental illness and homelessness every year, which is about 8% of their total call volume. The hope is that the SAFE team will assist with those calls and in turn, free up police officers while also helping de-escalate low-level situations.

San Rafael is working with the nonprofit Petaluma People Services Center to staff the response team for a three-year pilot period. The group already operates successful SAFE programs in cities in Sonoma County, including in Petaluma, Rohnert Park and Cotati.

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