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Austin police emphasize mental health training

Tuesday, December 22, 2015 by Jack Craver

The Austin Police Department has altered its training and procedures in response to a growing consensus among experts that much of crime is linked to untreated mental illness.

As a result, all new cadets in the Austin police academy receive 40 hours of training on mental health and on responding to situations involving people with mental illness. That wasn’t always the case, explained Lt. Brian Jones in a presentation to the Public Safety Commission on Dec. 7. “But because this is such an issue that’s at the forefront today, all cadets coming through the academy are getting this training,” he said.

The police force now has 162 patrol officers who have received an additional 40 hours of training (on top of that required for other police officers) from the department’s Crisis Intervention Team on mental health issues and are regularly called upon to respond to “subjects in a state of active mental health crisis,” for which they are paid extra. They are also tasked with coordinating care with Austin Travis County Integral Care, a public mental health authority.

Much of the training that officers receive is focused on strategies to avoid physical confrontations with people dealing with a mental health crisis. “De-escalation and least-restrictive outcomes are stressed, as are the concepts of jail diversion and referral to community-based care,” according to the presentation. “When speaking with consumers, patience and thoroughness are emphasized.”

As a last resort, however, Crisis Intervention Team patrol officers are authorized to put people in emergency detention, a type of warrantless detainment allowed if an officer has reason to believe that a person is both mentally ill and is at an immediate risk of harming himself. The detention order is valid for 48 hours, during which a doctor assesses the detainee and can determine whether the person should be released.

The number of emergency detentions has risen dramatically in recent years. The 4,609 detentions in 2014 is nearly quadruple the 1,251 in 2007. The number of reports identifying a mental health crisis have risen as well – from 6,361 in 2007 to 10,878 in 2014 – but not nearly as fast. That means that 42 percent of all mental health-related calls resulted in emergency detention last year, compared to just under 20 percent in 2007.

Jones attributed the big jump in detentions to the changes in training. “They’re much more able to recognize symptoms of a person experiencing a mental health crisis,” he said.

But a change in policy regarding drunk or high subjects also likely contributed to the increase in detentions. “There was a belief that we couldn’t do an emergency detention because they were intoxicated,” said Sgt. Mike King from the Crisis Intervention Team. “We’ve changed that.”

Despite these signs of progress, the department would still like to develop solutions that reduce the use of all types of detention. To that end, the police in 2014 began to work in conjunction with the Mobile Crisis Outreach Team, or MCOT, run by Austin Travis County Integral Care. Because of a memorandum of understanding between the police department and Austin Travis County Integral Care, a police officer can request the presence of MCOT personnel when responding to a mental health crisis. MCOT later follows up with people who have had contact with law enforcement related to mental illness and recommends services or treatment.

The help from MCOT appears to have been successful. Between Oct. 1, 2014, and Sept. 30, 2015, when MCOT personnel were involved in responding to a call, the issue was resolved without arrest or detention in just under 90 percent of cases.

“Many times an officer would arrive at a location, and because they were limited on options, many times an emergency detention was all they could do,” said Jones. “Whereas now, with MCOT being called to the scene, MCOT can offer many different varieties of treatment on the scene.”

Nevertheless, King said that he expected the number of emergency detentions for 2015 will slightly surpass last year’s record total.

Photo by WhisperToMe (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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