The “subject down” call came into the San Rafael police dispatcher on Thursday morning at 10:22 a.m. A passerby reported that a man was lying on the ground at the corner of Second and A.
Instead of dispatching paramedics or the police to assess the situation, San Rafael’s new mobile crisis intervention team, Specialized Assistance for Everyone (SAFE), responded to the call. On March 29, San Rafael became the first city in Marin County to launch a mobile crisis program. Several such programs already exist in Sonoma County.
Two civilian first responders, specially trained to provide services for vulnerable community members, found the man prone and groaning on the sidewalk. Priscilla Ferreira and her trainee, La Tasha Knighten, noted the smell of alcohol on the man, but also saw that he had head injuries.
Under gentle questioning from Ferreira, the man explained in Spanish that he had been robbed and beaten the previous evening. Ferreira, who is fluent in Spanish, said that SAFE would take him to the hospital in their rig, and he readily agreed.
However, the man kept falling back down when Ferreira and Knighten tried to help him up. Equipped with police radios and tied-in to the 911 dispatchers, they called for paramedics to transport the man to the hospital.
Within a few minutes, five paramedics from the San Rafael and Central Marin fire departments were on scene. Perhaps it was the presence of the large group or a moment of confusion, but the victim suddenly changed his mind about receiving services.
“I want to die,” he yelled. “Leave me alone.”
Ferreira, who had established a rapport with the man, spoke with him again. He calmed down, cooperated and was soon on his way to the emergency room in the paramedics’ ambulance.
It was a typical call—if there is such a thing for a mobile crisis unit—with the desired outcome.
“He could have just walked away, but we got him the medical attention he needed,” Ferreira said. “It feels good.”
My assignment this particular morning was to observe the San Rafael SAFE team in action. While I wasn’t permitted to accompany Ferreira and Knighten in their vehicle, I did a ride along with Sergeant Justin Graham of the San Rafael Police Department. Graham and I shadowed the crisis response team.
“SAFE is a separate entity,” Graham said. “It’s the fourth leg of public safety in San Rafael, alongside police, fire and medical.”
It is unusual for the police to follow a SAFE team, SAFE director Aziz Majid said. The teams respond alone to 80% of the calls, with the police dispatched only when a safety issue arises.
After just three weeks, the program is already having a positive impact in San Rafael. The SAFE teams have handled 10 to 14 calls during each 12-hour shift, allowing the overburdened police and emergency medical personnel to focus on situations requiring their expertise.
“We don’t work for the police—we work with them,” Majid said. “Our team doesn’t carry weapons or handcuffs. We have radios and come armed with empathy.”
SAFE primarily serves the homeless community, which accounts for 40% of their calls, and people with mental health and substance use issues. In addition to de-escalating crisis situations, team members provide a variety of services, including transportation, referrals to other organizations and harm reduction methods, such as needle exchanges.
The City of San Rafael signed a three-year contract with SAFE for $750,000 annually, according to Majid. The program currently operates seven days a week, from 8am to 8pm.
Ferreira and Knighten had responded to two calls prior to helping the man with the head injury. They began their morning by assisting eight homeless people who were being evicted from an unauthorized encampment on private property. Although the campers declined transportation, SAFE gave them clean clothes, food and information about services in the area.
The SAFE duo also went to The Pink Owl, a downtown coffee shop, in response to a public disturbance call. A man known to have mental health issues reportedly entered the shop and accused staff of poisoning his coffee. The man was gone by the time Ferreira and Knighten arrived; however, they checked on the baristas to ensure everyone was OK after the incident.
It wasn’t even 11am, and Ferreira and Knighten were preparing for their fourth call of the day —one that this reporter couldn’t attend. They would be meeting with the Downtown Streets Team, a nonprofit organization with programs for homeless people, to discuss the confidential needs of a specific client.
SAFE launched in Petaluma in July 2021. Since then, it has expanded to Rohnert Park; Cotati; Sonoma State University, making it the first mobile crisis program on a California state university campus; and now San Rafael. All of the SAFE teams are under the auspices of the Petaluma People Services Center, which runs more than 70 human services programs.
Majid, SAFE’s director, likes to say that there is “no call too small” for SAFE. Teams can transport a homeless person to St. Vincent’s for a free meal or hand out bottles of water. Then there are the more challenging calls, like a three-hour family mediation.
“A lot of these calls are mental health or substance related—nonviolent,” Majid said. “Police officers are trained for violent or criminal issues. SAFE provides trauma informed care. We watch gestures and body posture, won’t overact and respect personal space. We sit there, listen, give empathy and take our time on a call.”
SAFE employs 34 people across Sonoma and Marin counties, most working in the field as first responders. The needs are different in each community that SAFE serves. In San Rafael, every shift is staffed with a bilingual, Spanish-speaking person. Bilingual SAFE team navigators follow up with clients and refer them to resources in their area.
All team members have a background in the mental health or behavioral fields. Upon joining SAFE, staff go through two weeks of SAFE classroom training and five weeks of field training.
Recently hired, Knighten, who is completing her field training in San Rafael, has more than 13 years of experience working with youth on probation and managing diversion programs. She’s also attending school to become a licensed therapist.
Ferreira started with SAFE a year ago in Petaluma and has transferred to work in San Rafael’s new program. Her psychology and sociology degrees helped prepare her for the job, as did her experience working with autistic children and at a domestic violence shelter. Ferreira is currently working on her master’s degree in conflict resolution and negotiation.
Majid onboarded to the first SAFE team in Sonoma County as an EMT. The Marin native previously worked at San Quentin teaching financial literacy.
The varied expertise of the team members is beneficial because of the wide range of calls they receive. A team could go from working with a family on a dispute about child custody, to an eviction call, followed by responding to someone attempting suicide.
“Then there are those calls where a person doesn’t want to engage,” Majid said. “We respect that. It might take four or five calls to break the ice and make a connection with someone in need, but we keep trying. As long as we’re building rapport, it’s a success.”