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Human Rights Commission calls for $1.75M for more mental health emergency responders

Thursday, August 29, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

The Human Rights Commission has joined the city’s Public Safety Commission in recommending that City Council commit funds in the next budget to add staff for first responders dealing with individuals experiencing a mental health crisis.

The rights commission unanimously approved a recommendation heavily based on a May report that outlines the need for $1.75 million to add 10 positions to the city’s emergency response services, with the intention that those hires be trained mental health professionals who can assist police and EMS staff in the field. Last year the Office of the City Auditor found that Austin had the highest rate of fatal police shootings involving people believed to be experiencing a mental health crisis among the 15 most populated cities in the U.S.

Representatives from the Austin Justice Coalition helped commission members fashion the recommendation, with the hope that support from two city commissions will lend weight to the issue during Council’s ongoing budget sessions.

“These reforms aren’t controversial. The only thing controversial is how to pay for it,” Austin Justice Coalition policy advocate Kathy Mitchell said. “We’ve waited a long time and a lot of people have died and it’s time to stop waiting. We’re trying to tell them, here’s all the details. EMS is well aware of this report. Staff is well aware of this report, and the dollar figures have been vetted.”

Mitchell and her Austin Justice Coalition colleague Mandy Blott said the additional positions are needed because currently the Austin Police Department is the primary responder for two-thirds of calls involving a mental health issue.

The $1.75 million recommendation is part of a larger $2.8 million figure included in May’s report from the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute that includes sustaining and expanding the city’s Expanded Mobile Crisis Outreach Team.

Commission members discussed delaying a vote on the recommendation so they could read the complete 119-page Meadows report and its findings for expanding mental health personnel. Instead, the tight timeline for forwarding budget requests and amendments to Council prior to an expected adoption of the budget in mid-to-late September caused them to push forward.

“Based on the coming deadline and based on the fact this has already been unanimously supported by the Public Safety Commission and because this is a budget request …. of everything we’re discussing here tonight, this one seems to be the most time-sensitive,” said Commissioner Alicia Weigel, who co-sponsored the item.

The final language included references to four Austin residents who were killed during police-involved shootings in recent years, with the reasoning that those and other violent incidents might have been avoided had there been more trained mental health professionals involved in the city’s emergency response teams.

Before its ultimate inclusion, commissioners dissected the language and discussed how to parse the cause and effect of police response during mental health incidents.

“I do feel it’s important to name them specifically because any time a citizen is killed by a police officer it’s a sign of a performance issue,” Commissioner Nathan White said. “Not knowing the specifics of the case, we still know the reality is the police force used deadly force against a citizen. It would be splitting hairs as to whether they caused it or what de-escalation tactics were used. Somebody died and it was the police’s fault.”

Mitchell said the prolonged research into those incidents and others has kept the city from taking action to address the issue in a budget situation where the police department is already looking for ways to fill 120 vacancies.

“We have spent a lot of time going back and forth about who’s to blame for particular incidents where things went sideways,” she said. “That is harmful to the whole community. In so many of these cases there is a systemic problem that underlies the failures.”

Photo by HAH Photography made available through a Creative Commons license.

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