Three Harris County Sheriff’s deputies will have new partners riding shotgun soon, if county officials approve a pilot program pairing them with mental health workers to deal with mentally disturbed suspects.
Sheriff Adrian Garcia said he wants to treat the mentally ill, not jail them.
“This will help keep those in crisis from becoming a greater danger to themselves or another, and if they get the right treatment and services, they will be less likely to behave in a way that attracts the attention of the police again,” Garcia said recently.
The proposal was welcomed by families of local mentally ill residents slain in violent confrontations with law enforcement.
“When incidents occur like this, I think that some type of medical professional should come along with officers to help the situation. Really, just to calm the person down or whatever they’re dealing with,” said Patricie Alexander, whose brother was shot 29 times by six Houston police officers after he crashed his car into a police substation two years ago.
In another incident this June, Steven Hayes died after Nassau Bay police shocked him three times with a Taser. Hayes, 55, who had a history of mental illness, was yelling and pounding a coffee table in a hotel at which he was not a guest when police were called. Hayes’ brother, Edward Hayes, a professor at the University of Houston-Clear Lake, attended Garcia’s recent presentation to Harris County Commissioners Court to show his support.
Better for everyone
On Tuesday, the court will consider allowing the sheriff to hire three deputies for the pilot program. The deputies would respond to calls in the unincorporated parts of Harris County, accompanied by a clinician from the Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority.
The three Crisis Intervention Response Team units would add to the round-the-clock coverage provided by 10 such units now operated by the Houston Police Department. Those units have responded to crisis calls outside city limits, said HPD Lt. Mike Lee, but only rarely.
When the mentally ill interact with the criminal justice system, everyone loses, Garcia said.
“When these calls involve nonviolent minor crimes or disturbances, it is better for the suspect, better for the police, better for the public, and better for the criminal justice system to arrange medical treatment for the suspect rather than charge them with a crime and then take them to jail,” Garcia said.
County Judge Ed Emmett noted the staggering cost of incarceration, adding, “It’s such a desperately needed program.”
The sheriff’s office estimates that a quarter of the county jail’s 10,000 inmates take medications for some type of mental illness.
Professor Larry Hoover, who heads the Police Research Center at Sam Houston State University, strongly supports the concept, which he said has been successful in many other cities.
“One of the things you’re trying to accomplish is to change the police mind-set that every situation has to be resolved quickly,” he said. “Frequently, it is police compulsion to draw a situation to a close which leads to tragedy.”
Mental health workers also are able to access an offender’s case file, if one exists, MHMRA deputy director Barbara Dawson said.
“They’re better informed as a team going to the scene,” Dawson said. For example, “you know that they missed the last three appointments, and they’re probably off their medications.”
‘A proven product’
Less than 1 percent of the suspects HPD’s CIRT teams encounter go to jail, Dawson said. Roughly a third are brought in for treatment, she said; the remaining incidents are resolved at the scene.
Between 400 and 500 low-level, mentally-ill offenders are diverted from the county jail each month by HPD’s CIRT teams, according to a letter to Commissioners Court from MHMRA Executive Director Steven Schnee.
“There’s no doubt in my mind it’s going to work. No doubt,” Lt. Lee said. “It’s a proven product.”