SJPD Assigns New Mental Health Unit

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The San Jose Police Department is making a big change in the way it deals with some of the most controversial calls they get. 

The department now has a dedicated team, exclusively for situations involving mental health issues and they've already got their first high profile case --  the arrest of a man who broke into a preschool school and drove a spike through it's 70-year-old pet tortoise.     

NBC Bay Area first reported on this new Mobile Crisis Response Team as a pilot program in the fall of 2020, and on Thursday, police say that program, with more staffing, is now permanent and led to a peaceful arrest in that tortoise attack. 

George Robles, 40, was arrested Monday after he returned to the Play n Learn preschool with a brick, police said, to attempt a second attack on the school's tortoise Michelangelo A.

By this point, Robles had already been arrested for allegedly stabbing and bludgeoned the 70-year-old tortoise after breaking into the school on Saturday.

He was released to await charges, and police say that's when he tried to return to the school, but this time, they sent one of their Mobile Crisis Response Team units which specialize in dealing with calls involving mental health issues. The team focuses on de-escalation rather than confrontation. 

“I think a lot of it had to do with our tone,” said team commander Sgt. Mike Porter. “And just with our approach from a distance, calling him out by name, he was more receptive to that.”

The Mobile Crisis Response Team is now a permanent part of the department with two sergeants and eight officers dealing exclusively with suspected mental health cases. 

“Having a permanent unit allows us more time. I mean that’s the biggest thing here is the time,” said James Cerniglia, mobile unit administrator. “The time to spend with people when they need it at the time to direct them to appropriate levels of care.”

But community activist Shaunn Cartwright, who helps people living on the streets, is skeptical. 

“The people who should be leading a program like this are the people who are already trained to do it,” said Unhoused Response Group advocate Shaunn Cartwright. “The social workers, the advocates, the people who work with the unhoused community all day long have not previously caused them trauma.”

The new mobile unit is still setting up as a permanent part of the department and will be responding full time, as well as trying to win over skeptics starting in March.

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