Tony Serrano

Tony Serrano speaks to those assembled for the beginning of the Crisis Assistance Response and Evaluation Services program in Half Moon Bay. August Howell / Review

Tony Serrano had to dry his eyes before speaking. Then he reflected on the death of his younger sister, Yanira, who was killed by San Mateo County Sheriff’s deputies during a mental health crisis in 2014, and the efforts to create positive change in the aftermath. Serrano spoke about the value of a new unarmed emergency response program that officially began taking shape last year, but had been on his mind ever since the tragedy.

“We don’t know if this program could have saved my sister’s life seven years ago,” he said. “All I know is that it will save many lives and restore the confidence to make a call for help.”

Serrano was speaking to a dozen dignitaries, partners and more than 100 people who attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony at El Centro de Libertad’s office at Shoreline Station on March 16. The occasion was the launch of the nonprofit’s Crisis Assistance Response and Evaluation Services program, a much-lauded civilian-response model for mental health emergencies in Half Moon Bay.

The pilot is co-funded by $75,000 each from the city of Half Moon Bay and San Mateo County. The program will expand later this year thanks to a recent $180,000 grant to Half Moon Bay from the California Department of Health Care Services that more than doubles the initial budget for the program. Nonprofit and city staff say the plan is to eventually transition to 24-hour, seven-day-a-week service, though that will cost more money.

With support from local government, mobile El Centro staff members will take redirected 911 calls and respond to mental health and behavioral emergencies in both Half Moon Bay and Moonridge. The seventh-month pilot will operate from 1:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Tuesday through Saturday. In September, the El Centro will use the state funds to add a second team and expand services from 7:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. seven days a week until next year. The teams will have a one-hour overlap, and by adding more services later in the year, El Centro staff hope the program could address mental health emergencies in area schools.

The city will be seeking additional state funding, with special attention to the California Department of Social Services. The state has a new grant program established through Assembly Bill 118, which is co-authored by Sen. Josh Becker, whose district includes the Coastside. The Community Response Initiative to Strengthen Emergency Systems Act, or the CRISIS Act, provides a minimum of $250,000 per year to fund community-based alternatives to law enforcement just like the CARES program.

The unarmed bilingual CARES unit consists of two El Centro staff members, one licensed health clinician and another an EMT or health care practitioner, in a van that will respond only to calls screened through 911 by the San Mateo County Office of Public Safety Communications call center. It will not respond to calls if there are reports of violence or medical emergencies. The staff members will be trained in de-escalation, suicide prevention and crisis intervention.

Half Moon Bay’s program follows a trend of new pilots around the state attempting to shift police away from responding to mental health issues.

“This is groundbreaking,” El Centro Executive Director Jeff Essex said. “This is going to spread and catch on.”

Essex said the staffing times were developed based on 10 months of dispatch data for the city. Perhaps surprisingly, most calls for mental health emergencies did not occur during the graveyard shift, he said.

The program involves numerous collaborations with county agencies and local essential service nonprofits, including, ALAS, Abundant Grace Coastside Workers, LifeMoves and CoastPride. Essex said Sheriff Carlos Bolanos has supported the idea from the beginning, and staff members have received emergency training and radios from Sheriff’s deputies and Coastside Patrol Bureau Capt. Andrew Armando. A key goal for the CARES team is to connect those experiencing the emergency with help and services as soon as possible.

“The last couple of years have been difficult, and we’ve seen an increase of people suffering from mental health emergencies,” said Supervisor Don Horsley, who noted he was well familiar with former leadership at El Centro and their reputation. “I have a lot of faith in these people. It’s a great organization and they do great work.”

Much of the early groundwork for this development occurred in discussions within the Latino Advisory Council and the Half Moon Bay City Council. Last year the City Council endorsed the Latino council’s initiatives outlined in the Yanira Serrano Presente! Program, which aimed to bolster mental health services and improve relations between residents and law enforcement. Concerns about shifting responsibilities of Sheriff’s deputies away from mental health emergencies intensified after the death of Sandra Harmon, who reportedly suffered from mental health issues and was shot by deputies in Half Moon Bay in 2020 after brandishing a gun.

“There has long been a great need for a more thoughtful, appropriate and safer response to emergency calls experiencing a mental health crisis,” Mayor Debbie Ruddock said. “Here in Half Moon Bay, we've seen the tragic results that can result from a conventional response when a nonviolent response focuses on addressing a person’s mental wellness would have been more appropriate, even life-saving.”

August Howell is a staff writer for the Review covering city government and public safety. Previously, he was the Review’s community, arts and sports reporter. He studied journalism at the University of Oregon.

(9) comments

Another Concerned Citizen

Let's put it to a city-wide vote and see what the majority is willing to do to risk the lives of their citizens.

Another Concerned Citizen

This should have been put to a city-wide vote. The majority would never have approved risking their safety like this. Of course, this city council never considers public opinion in anything they do.

Coastsider Rebel

"The majority would never have approved"?!? Says the ONLY guy making negative comments about the program. I think we have a different definition of the word "majority".

Another Concerned Citizen

Nobody can tell before they arrive whether a situation is dangerous. Excited 911 callers often misjudge situations, don't know all the facts, or are inarticulate in describing them, and when it goes from the layperson reporting to the 911 dispatcher to the mental health people here you are literally playing a game of "telephone." This program will end when the first unarmed mental health responder gets shot. Let the police determine arrive first and determine whether a situation calls for a mental health responder, that will save lives.

Coastsider Rebel

Sadly, this comment reflects the mindset that prevents change from ever happening.

Coastsider Rebel

Sadly, this comment reflects the mindset that prevents change from ever happening. I'm grateful our City leaders are more forward looking.

GT650

Great job by the Sheriff's Department on this one!

Another Concerned Citizen

When it's change that harms public safety, it should be opposed. I'm sorry it's going to have to end in tragedy before it's stopped.

Coastsider Rebel

Fortunately, your opinion is the minority one. Enjoy your doomsday scenario.

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