Hous­ton Po­lice Depart­ment a leader in help­ing of­fi­cers deal with men­tal health en­coun­ters

Modern Healthcare - - NEWS - By Steven Ross John­son

Back in 1991, the Hous­ton Po­lice Depart­ment be­gan notic­ing a prob­lem that con­tin­ues to plague many law en­force­ment agen­cies to­day.

Beat of­fi­cers were spend­ing six to eight hours of their shifts work­ing to get a de­ten­tion or­der for emer­gency eval­u­a­tion if they en­coun­tered some­one on the street ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a psy­chotic episode.

The process in­cluded fill­ing out a seven-page health form and hav­ing it signed by a judge and no­ta­rized be­fore an of­fi­cer could take a per­son to a men­tal health fa­cil­ity. The only fa­cil­ity avail­able to take in such in­di­vid­u­als had just 12 in­pa­tient beds. If all the beds were filled, the of­fi­cer had to stay with the de­tainee un­til one be­came avail­able.

“Many of those of­fi­cers had a very dif­fi­cult time with the process in large part be­cause they saw it as a men­tal health is­sue and not a law en­force­ment is­sue,” said Re­becca Skillern, a train­ing of­fi­cer in the Hous­ton Po­lice Depart­ment’s Men­tal Health Di­vi­sion.

So the depart­ment be­gan look­ing into ways to stream­line the process of mov­ing peo­ple into psy­chi­atric eval­u­a­tion faster and get­ting po­lice back to pa­trolling the streets sooner.

It be­gan by part­ner­ing with Harris County’s men­tal health author­ity on mak­ing the process quicker and ex­pand­ing the num­ber of avail­able beds. The depart­ment also re­al­ized that of­fi­cers needed bet­ter train­ing on han­dling en­coun­ters with men­tally ill in­di­vid­u­als who were caus­ing a dis­tur­bance. In 1999, the depart­ment launched its cri­sis in­ter­ven­tion team train­ing pro­gram, a com­mu­nity polic­ing strat­egy that fo­cuses on teach­ing of­fi­cers tech­niques de­signed to de-es­ca­late po­ten­tially volatile sit­u­a­tions. The cri­sis in­ter­ven­tion team ap­proach was pi­o­neered by the Mem­phis (Tenn.) Po­lice Depart­ment in 1988 as a re­sponse to com­mu­nity calls for safer po­lice en­coun­ters with those who had se­vere men­tal ill­ness.

By 2001, the pro­gram had trained more than 200 Hous­ton of­fi­cers; now it has more than 2,000. The pro­gram now in­cludes 40 hours of manda­tory cri­sis in­ter­ven­tion train­ing for re­cruits at the po­lice acad­emy and eight hours of ad­vanced in­ter­ven­tion train­ing for all of­fi­cers, as well as ad­di­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties for such ed­u­ca­tion.

In 2005 the state man­dated all Texas law en­force­ment of­fi­cers to un­dergo a min­i­mum of 16 hours of cri­sis in­ter­ven­tion train­ing.

Build­ing on this suc­cess, the Hous­ton Po­lice Depart­ment in 2007 de­vel­oped a men­tal health unit, ex­pand­ing it to a di­vi­sion in 2013, and broad­en­ing the scope of work be­yond cri­sis in­ter­ven­tion train­ing. The di­vi­sion in­cludes cri­sis in­ter­ven­tion re­sponse of­fi­cers and teams, a home­less out­reach team and a chronic con­sumer sta­bi­liza­tion ini­tia­tive for in­di­vid­u­als who are re­peat­edly in need of po­lice in­ter­ven­tion. The di­vi­sion also has of­fi­cers tasked with en­forc­ing stan­dards for board­ing houses, which are of­ten a low-cost hous­ing op­tion for the men­tally ill.

In 2010, the Coun­cil of State Gov­ern­ments rec­og­nized the pro­gram as one of six in po­lice de­part­ments across the coun­try that other po­lice agen­cies can visit to learn how to im­prove their re­sponse to­ward in­di­vid­u­als with be­hav­ioral health disor­ders.

Skillern said th­ese ef­forts im­prove safety for of­fi­cers and com­mu­nity mem­bers by, among other things, re­duc­ing the like­li­hood that en­coun­ters in­volv­ing the men­tally ill will end up with po­lice us­ing deadly force.

“This is polic­ing in the 21st cen­tury,” Skillern said. “The reality of men­tal ill­ness is that it’s not go­ing to go away, and es­pe­cially in to­day’s world where we’re see­ing that it’s be­com­ing much more sig­nif­i­cant.”

Adults with se­vere men­tally ill­ness are in­volved in 1 in 10 of all po­lice re­sponses and at least 1 in 4 fa­tal po­lice en­coun­ters, ac­cord­ing to a 2015 re­port by the Treat­ment Ad­vo­cacy Cen­ter.

Fewer than 3,000 of the na­tion’s 18,000 state and lo­cal po­lice de­part­ments have cri­sis in­ter­ven­tion train­ing pro­grams, caus­ing ad­vo­cates to say much more work is needed to ex­pand such pro­grams. A big com­po­nent among the more suc­cess­ful pro­grams such as Hous­ton’s has been the col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween po­lice and com­mu­nity men­tal health stake­hold­ers.

“Train­ing is great, but over the long term they are not go­ing to have as much suc­cess if they go at it alone and don’t co­or­di­nate much more closely with our men­tal health sys­tem,” said Laura Usher, se­nior man­ager of crim­i­nal jus­tice and ad­vo­cacy for the Na­tional Al­liance on Men­tal Ill­ness.

Part of the job for of­fi­cers on the Hous­ton Po­lice Depart­ment’s Home­less Out­reach Team is to ar­range so­cial ser­vices for trou­bled in­di­vid­u­als they en­counter on the street.

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