Police, social workers team up for psychiatric emergencies in San Mateo County

The psychiatric emergency response team -- known as PERT -- consists of a sheriff and a social worker, working together to help a mentally ill individual, who has come to the attention of law enforcement.

On a normal day, San Mateo County Sheriff’s Deputy Jim Coffman can be seen rushing out on emergency calls or making regular visits to his clients’ homes, which are oftentimes located on rusty and stone-cold benches. But Coffman and his team can also be spotted giving the clients haircuts, assisting them with their social security papers or helping them open up a new bank account.

This is what Coffman as part of the psychiatric emergency response team — known as PERT — at the San Carlos Bureau of the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office does. It is a team consisting of a sheriff and a social worker working together to help a mentally ill individual, who has come to the attention of law enforcement.

The PERT team isn’t new. It started in San Diego County and has been implemented by many other counties throughout the nation. There are also many different versions of it. Some places call it the mobile crisis response team, where the work of police officers and licensed clinicians are on the front-end of the situation. In the case of the San Mateo County Sheriff’s team, it mostly works on what happens after the individual gets released from the hospital or jail — the back-end process.

Coffman emphasized that the goal is to keep people out of jail, but it is not to say that a mentally ill person cannot commit a crime, because they certainly do. And some horrific crimes over the years have been committed by people suffering from mental illness.

“Of course, justice has to be served,” he said. “But our goal is to catch them before they commit the crime or before they go back to the hospital over and over again, and help get them stabilized.”

The “5150” cases in San Mateo County Sheriff’s jurisdiction has seen a hike in numbers, up to 525 in 2016, at the time of Peninsula Press’ December interview.

A 5150 hold is a section of the California Welfare and Institutions Code, which allows law enforcement to detain someone for mental health evaluation if they are a danger to themselves or to others. Around 1,000 ambulance transports took place in 2014 from those 5150 holds and that number has remained steady since.

These numbers show that police continue to be first-responders when it comes to issues surrounding those with mental illnesses, and it raises the question of how much mental health treatment is adequately available to those who need it. So collaborative measures, such as the PERT team, become more prevalent and important in helping to address the complexity of the issue surrounding those who are mentally ill and who may also fall into the hands of police. 

“The first P in PERT, should be patience, because you deal with people who are suffering from mental illness and things don’t get fixed like that, ” said Coffman with a snap of his fingers. “It’s not like a surgery where you get your appendix removed and you’re fine. These are typically long-lasting, life-changing illnesses that come on mostly unexpected and wreak havoc with people’s lives through no fault of their own.”

He also attributed the change in police mentality and attitude toward those with mental illnesses to the growing efforts from all areas of society to educate and empathize the problems surrounding mental health. He believes the biggest obstacle standing between those with mental illnesses and the rest of the community is stigma.

”Society looks at them differently,” he added, and it will only truly change people’s perceptions on those with mental illnesses when, “it happens in your life and in your surroundings.”

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