San Antonio community wonders if the death of Melissa Perez at the hands of SAPD will be a ‘wake up call’

Critics ask why resources for the mentally ill meant to help her were not used — and she was instead killed.

By Paul Flahive, Texas Public RadioJuly 6, 2023 10:15 am, ,

From Texas Public Radio:

Melissa Perez’s family buried her last week in a private funeral ceremony. The 46-year-old mother of four was shot to death by San Antonio police officers, who now face murder charges and ongoing investigations.

Perez — who suffered from schizophrenia — had increasingly exhibited erratic behaviors, according to her family.

Now the community is left wondering why resources for the mentally ill meant to help her were not used, and why she was killed instead.

In the early hours of June 23, police were sent to Perez’s apartment complex on San Antonio’s South Side.

The men found a woman in a mental health crisis — a woman who thought the FBI was monitoring her through fire alarms and was trying to cut the wires outside. They had been summoned by the fire department, according to the arrest affidavits. Firefighters had found the woman trying to cut exterior cables to the fire alarm.

But the woman decided that she didn’t want to deal with the flashing red and blue lights of police cruisers and uniformed men with guns.

“Hey lady, get over here,” an officer said to Perez as she fled to her apartment.

Body camera footage showed an officer pursue and try to enter her locked apartment through a window. Perez throws and hits him with a glass candlestick.

“You’re gonna get shot,” he yelled.

“Shoot me,” she replied. “You ain’t got no warrant.”

At that point, San Antonio Police Chief William McManus said the team should have backed off and called for mental health support.

“The proper response would have been for them to simply leave, and we would deal with it at another time in a way that would not have put Ms. Perez in the situation that she was in,” McManus told TPR.

But the Mental Health Unit (MHU) — the 20 person, 16 officer unit that deals specifically with mental health calls — was not requested.

And more importantly, McManus said, at no time were de-escalation techniques used. “There were no tactics that were used that would have been appropriate for a mental health call,” he said.

Instead — within a few minutes — the interaction took a deadly turn.

“This should be a wake-up call for San Antonio,” said Doug Beach, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness for Greater San Antonio.

“There aren’t enough mental health officers,” he said. “We have 16. You think about that — 16 officers covering two million people all across the city seven days a week. And whether it’s 24 hours or 18 hours a day, we don’t have enough.”

These officers already have 40 hours of crisis intervention training as well as recertification.

“So you have to ask yourself, ‘what is going on? What happened?’ ” Beach asked.

TPR learned that two of the officers involved in the shooting have eight suspensions between them, including one indefinite suspension — which raised questions about their continued employment.

One in five people live with a mental illness, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In San Antonio, that’s around 400,000. About one in 25 live with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or another serious mental illness.

According to an award from the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, the city received an additional $1,000,000 to increase overtime and staff for the MHU. But even with the increase, the award says the MHU will be able to assist on over 25% of total Mental health related calls.

“There’s still much more work to do in that area,” said Deputy City Manager Maria Villagomez.

SAPD had already begun increasing mental health trainings, adding to crisis intervention training or CIT.

“They’re going through a more advanced mental health training, similar to what the mental health officers and the mental health unit receive. And that process is going to take us about three years,” Villagomez said.

The city has also added capacity through nonprofit partners like the Center for Healthcare Services (CHCS), which launched the SA Core team. The 11-person team responds directly to 911 calls.

“Since its inception they have successfully over 50% of the time resolved these situations,” said Jelynne LeBlanc Jamison, CEO of CHCS.

The teams are limited by geography — operating in just a few zip codes — and by day part. Villagomez said the partnership is looking to add two more teams early next year. And the county has already approved funding for a similar partnership with its SMART team.

“Even more so than hiring more officers to be patrolling our streets, we need to expand this team,” said Ananda Tomas, executive director of Act4SA, a police reform watchdog group.

Tomas said they have warned police and the city about deadly scenarios like those of Perez for years; they have been pushing for more money and resources for non-police responses.

“The budget discussions are coming up. And we’re going to advocate and push for serious expansion of the SA core team,” she said.

As Perez’s family prepares to sue — it will seek to make the case that this is not simply the work of three rogue police officers — but a systemic problem within the ranks of SAPD neglected by city leadership.

It’s not as if you have a rogue officer who was by himself who shot this woman who was in her own house behind a locked door,” said Dan Packard, attorney for the family.

“It’s just a hard sell to say our training is pristine and we’re a paragon of excellence when in fact six different officers are there. Nobody said anything. Nobody de-escalated,” he continued. “Three different officers pulled the trigger. And another one is there with his gun drawn. I don’t know how you can say that many people misunderstood the training.”

Packard said they expect to file their lawsuit this week.

TPR’s Josh Peck contributed to this report.

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