SAN JOSE, Calif. — The San Jose Police Department requested through their district's representative, Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, $1 million from Congress this year to improve officer training. The department wants to improve how officers respond to calls involving people affected by mental health crises. The SJPD's spokesperson said it's the first police program of its kind in California, and it's their first request for Community Project Funding. 

What You Need To Know

  • The San Jose Police Department requested $1 million from Congress for their MCAT pilot program

  • The SJPD’s spokesperson said it’s the first police program of its kind in California and it’s their first request for Community Project Funding

  • Lofgren is working to secure the money through a kind of special appropriation that had been banned for 10 years and is just now making a comeback, called earmarks

  • Now the SJPD awaits the House Appropriations Committee’s decision whether to include their million-dollar-idea into the fiscal year 2022 appropriation bills

Lofgren is working to secure the money through a special appropriation that had been banned for 10 years and is just now making a comeback called earmarks. SJPD worked with Sandra Hernandez, a licensed clinical social worker at Santa Clara County Behavioral Health to submit the request.

"No person is immune from mental illness," Hernandez said.

Hernandez said the stigma of mental illness leads to some people not getting the treatment they need. That can contribute to worsening symptoms and distress calls getting out of hand. 

"Some people who feel that that is a touchy subject, a difficult subject, it brings up many things for them, that they'd rather just kind of keep to themselves," Hernandez said. "It's really a tough thing to do because people reach a point where then they do have to let it out in some way."

During the pandemic, the rate of adult Californians who experienced mental illness rose from about 19.5% to 33%, according to Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit that tracks national mental health issues. Hernandez said this issue has been exasperated by COVID-19 but stresses it has been around long before. She said pre-pandemic she had listened to people involved in distress calls in San Jose and elsewhere that officers should take a different approach when handling people with mental illness.

"The sense that I've heard from people is, like 'they're barking orders at me; they're telling me, but they're not giving me the chance to answer. It's like, 'Put your hands up," Hernandez said. "Rather than, 'Hi, how are you? My name is; I'm here to help'. You know, being very upfront, honest about who they are, and that they're here to help. And I think why I'm so excited about MCAT and the new way and new approach is because I have had a great experience in the past, working with prior officers from San Jose PD, who had the same vision I did, and that is: we need to do it differently."

She and the SJPD are not taking the appropriations request process for granted either, as it hasn't always been there. The term earmarks are appropriations steered by individual lawmakers to projects or programs in their home districts. Republicans did away with them 10 years ago because the process was sometimes abused. President Barrack Obama also didn't support them and called them "wasteful spending." Democrats in Congress are now bringing them back, with controls.

Each lawmaker can submit 10 requests. Lofgren's list started out with more than 10 requests, which were dwindled down to include the $1 million for the San Jose Police Department to turn its pilot program of a specially trained mobile crisis assessment team, or MCAT, into a permanent unit. MCAT officers are trained in crisis intervention to defuse situations to not escalate and become violent. If necessary, they'll pair up with county mental health clinicians like Hernandez, who work in response teams called MCRT, short for Mobile Crisis Response Team, to provide psychiatric help. The department received a Justice Department grant in 2019 for the pilot program, which started last October.

"MCAT is different in that the clinicians will meet with officers or officers will call our MCRT team and say 'we have a situation in our community. We would like your clinical knowledge and experience to help assist in a situation," Hernandez said. "We want people to get better and do better."  

Data for MCAT diversions show most encounters did not result in an emergency psychiatric hospitalization, otherwise known as involuntary detention, the past few months. The criteria for that admittance is if the subject is a danger to oneself or others, indicating the program is working. MCAT officers are also able to spend more time, sometimes hours, on just one distress call to ensure de-escalation. Even with several successful de-escalations this year, the SJPD says without federal funding, it could take another year for the pilot program to become permanent. SJPD said it could support the pilot program with overtime costs and budgetary oversight temporarily. Still, it would be a challenge to solidify the new unit without more funding from the city or federal government.

Now the department eagerly awaits the House Appropriations Committee's decision on whether to include its million-dollar-idea into the fiscal year 2022 appropriation bills. The House Appropriation Committee said it would begin evaluating all the earmark requests in the "coming weeks." It said the process would be transparent, unlike in the past, meaning all earmark requests are posted online.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story's headline misstated that Rep. Zoe Lofgren had earmarked $1 million for San Jose PD’s mental health pilot program. She has made the request. This has been corrected. (June 16, 2021)