Police response to mental health call raises questions over when force is present

Feb. 18, 2021, 12:04 a.m.

This story contains references to a student in a mental health crisis that may be troubling to some readers and includes a list of resources for students at the end.

Amid student calls to rethink police presence on campus and in mental health situations, the Stanford Department of Public Safety (SUDPS) is often still the first response for mental health emergency calls. 

On Monday, officers responding to a call entered a student residence carrying a gun with rubber bullets. Rubber bullets are considered less-than-lethal force but still dangerous — raising questions about when and why officers are authorized to use force when responding to mental health emergency calls.

SUDPS spokesperson Bill Larson told The Daily that sometimes less-than-lethal force is deemed necessary by police forces when an individual has the intent to harm themselves or others. 

“The situation at [the student residence] ultimately did not dictate the need for the police to fire or even point any weapon at anyone,” Larson wrote.

Police placed the student on an involuntary 72-hour psychiatric hold, according to Larson. Such holds are known as a 5150 and are placed when an individual is identified as a threat to themselves or others. 

Guns with rubber bullets are considered dangerous because of their ability to disable, disfigure and kill in short range. When asked why SUDPS responded to a mental health crisis with less-than-lethal force, Larson wrote, “It is important to understand that when the police are dispatched to a call for service, they are often responding to situations in which there is limited, frequently changing, and sometimes conflicting information.”

The incident comes after the University implemented a policy in October to reduce police involvement in 5150 calls. The new policy requires that in “most” cases students are transported to hospitals by ambulance instead of SUDPS, though SUDPS will continue to respond. 

It also comes as Abolish Stanford and other student activists have called for less policing on campus and a greater prioritization of mental health and wellbeing by the University. The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in an increased demand for mental health resources on college campuses, including at Stanford.

Police response to a mental health crisis can be prompted in multiple ways, ranging from students directly calling SUDPS to students reporting a crisis to Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). Calls to campus resources such as CAPS about suicidal ideation and self harm can also prompt such a response if campus resources deem there is an imminent threat of harm to oneself or others. 

CAPS Director Bina Patel declined to comment directly on how the presence of less-than-lethal force could impact a student having a mental health crisis. 

“We [CAPS] continue to do our very best to support students and to work on solutions to the challenges facing students through the pandemic and as campus re-opens,” she wrote.

If you are in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.

The Santa Clara County Mobile Crisis Response Team sends counselors alongside crisis intervention-trained officers to de-escalate nonviolent mental health crisis situations. The crisis counselor who answers your call will collect information about the situation and determine if the Mobile Crisis Team can respond. You can call the Santa Clara County Mobile Crisis Response Team at 1-800-704-0900, option #2. The line is live 8am-8pm, and staff will return calls after 8pm! For students under 18, call the Uplift Mobile Crisis Team at 408-379-9085 or 877-412-7474.

The Bridge Peer Counseling Center offers anonymous peer counseling for students regardless of location. The Bridge is open 3 p.m. — 12 a.m. PT daily. The Bridge Home Page has more instructions for accessing this service during the pandemic. 

CAPS offers a range of services, including individual therapy and therapy consultations for students in California. For students outside of California, CAPS can also offer support for real-time needs and care management consultations to help arrange for local support if needed. CAPS also has a 24-7 support line for urgent needs: 650-723-3785. The CAPS FAQs has more information on its services during the pandemic.

Contact the news section at news ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

Ari Gabriel ’23 is a staff writer for the Equity Project and Campus Life desk and occasionally writes for arts and satire. She is majoring in Product Design, and she is unironically into all things possum, to an alarming extent. Contact her at agabriel ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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