Hollister Police Department has launched a program that collects information from residents with special needs in an effort to better respond to cases involving mental health.
The Hollister City Council received a report March 21 from police officer Staci Esqueda, who is also serving as HPD’s mental health officer, concerning its new voluntary resident registration program for community members with special needs.
Her function as the department’s mental health officer, she said, is funded through the county’s Behavioral Health Department with funds from the Mental Health Services Act. Esqueda said Behavioral Health has been collaborating with HPD to provide support for special needs individuals who encounter police officers.
In 2020, HPD and San Benito County Behavioral Health Department created the Support, Awareness, Follow-up and Engagement (S.A.F.E.) program intended to be utilized when law enforcement responds to a case related to an individual suffering from behavioral health. The Behavioral Health Department is not part of the new Special Needs Registry program.
“We came up with a special needs registry,” Esqueda said. “It will be a no-cost service to our residents. Family members and caregivers can voluntarily sign these individuals up by obtaining the application from the department or our website, or registration nights when we come out into the community.” She added that information for the registry may also be collected in schools, pending school approval.
Police Chief Carlos Reynoso told BenitoLink that the department asks for proof during the registration to establish the relationship.
“Some may have a form of power of attorney granted through the courts but each case is unique,” he said.
According to the report, HPD has had several instances where officers have encountered residents with health conditions that make effective communication difficult.
Esqueda described the Special Needs Registration as a free safety tool used to assist police officers to help special needs individuals and their families by increasing mutual awareness, understanding, and communication between HPD and the community. The intent of the registry is to help first responders to ascertain the needs of the individual or to locate emergency contacts or medical service’s needs. The registration would also include photographs of individuals.
The information obtained from individuals will be kept in the HPD records management system database that only officers can access it. Information could be shared over their radios during emergency situations.
“The information that would save time to provide reunification [with families or caregivers] and understanding in how to engage with these individuals,” Esqueda said. “We have a large majority of individuals who have a need, whether that be on the autism spectrum or individuals with dementia or Alzheimer’s, traumatic brain injuries, or PTSD. It can be difficult for officers to understand what their needs are.”
She said the first registration night would be April 6, from 6:30 p.m.-8 p.m., at the Veterans Memorial Building on San Benito Street. It will be coordinated with the San Andreas Regional Center and the ifineedhelp.org, a nonprofit that provides families with QR codes that can be attached to individual’s clothing or shoes, as well as ID bracelets and necklaces. Participants can download the form from HPD and bring it in, or leave it at the station, along with a photo.
Hollister City Councilman Tim Burns asked how HPD would ensure the individuals’ rights would be protected. Esqueda told him there is no absolute guarantee that the information would not be leaked. He noted that the city is protected because the person filling out the form signs a liability waiver. Burns said he thought the registry was “a great idea.”
“We made it clear on the back of our brochure that this is voluntary, and we can’t safeguard every bit of information because some of it will be broadcast through our radio channels,” Esqueda said. “It is something for a family member to be aware of. There is going to be some leakage of information that we can’t completely control. We hope that individuals can see the broader scope, which is trying to serve the loved one and ensure they can be reunited or provided services at the time of the interaction with law enforcement.”
Even though Councilman Rick Perez was complimentary of the work he has seen between the police work with Behavioral Health, he said he was not comfortable with the possibility the information could be leaked.
Councilwoman Delores Morales also voiced concern about leaked information that she said is most likely protected by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and any liabilities the city might face over the Americans with Disabilities Act concerns. She shared her concerns about “protecting the disabled, police killings and use of force.”
“Most of these situations are tied to exigent circumstances and a lot of times that’s where HIPAA allows us, as law enforcement, to be able to guide through that with a little less liability,” Esqueda said, “because we’re able to couple that exigency with the person’s care and need. We want people to understand that some of this information may be broadcast in a way that we can’t control.”
Reynoso added that the process had been vetted by City Attorney Jason Epperson. He supported Esqueda’s claim that the program will be exempt from liability because of exigent circumstances, and because police will not be sharing it with the public. He assured the council that sharing the information over the radio would rarely be done.
Esqueda added that people who fill out the registry do not have to complete all the information asked for if they’re uncomfortable doing so.
Morales also wondered about the issue of “informed consent” and who is giving it when filling out the form. Esqueda responded that the information is geared toward the special needs person and the hope is that the family or caregiver will have a conversation with the person so they understand they are consenting to their personal information being on the database and what it will be used for.
“They will have to decide if the cost outweighs the benefit,” Esqueda said.
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