HOUSTON – Law enforcement is working to help people experiencing a mental health crisis in Harris County.
“Individuals that work at the Harris County Sheriff’s Office are having to respond to individuals in crisis on a daily basis, whether it’s inside the jail or on patrol,” said Sgt. Jose Gomez.
A deputy was on patrol on April 14, when the family of Marcelo Garcia called 911 saying he was having a mental health crisis.
Garcia, his family said, suffered from mental illness his entire life.
Body camera video showed Garcia chasing a deputy and refusing to put down a knife before his deadly shooting.
“They sent someone who wasn’t trained for it and they killed him,” said Garcia’s sister, Jessica Garza.
Garza said they requested a mental health unit, but investigators said the only one on that shift was on another call.
In total, the department has nine units across all shifts.
“We do not have enough to provide adequate coverage around the county. Sending armed police officers to mental health crisis calls is not the ideal situation,” said HCSO Assistant Chief Mike Lee.
Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia created the Crisis Intervention Response Team when he was Harris County Sheriff in 2011.
“I didn’t want to be a part of criminalizing their mental health,” said Garcia.
The Houston Police Department has 12 mental health units.
Garcia said funding for more in Harris County was not available.
“The state has got to lead, otherwise we struggle at the local level, putting it on the shoulders of law enforcement officers, which isn’t the right way to approach it,” said Garcia.
“The Crisis Response Teams partners a mental health peace officer with a clinician from the Harris Center for Mental Health IDD,” said Gomez.
The Harris County Sheriff’s Office has become an innovator in crisis intervention with training at the Harris County Sheriff’s Office Academy.
“Whether they go to detentions or patrol, (they) have to go through 40 hours of mental health training and then 16 hours of de-escalation training,” said Gomez.
De-escalation training includes scenarios. In one of them, an inmate at a detention center threatens suicide and deputies attempt to de-escalate the situation.
But it’s not just scenarios in the classroom, 150 deputies are also equipped with tablets, that can connect people in crisis at a scene directly to a psychiatrist at the Harris Center.
“When they go to a call for service and they need to talk to a clinician or need an assessment, they’re able to pull out the device,” said Gomez.
The training is used in jail facilities, too.
According to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, the county jail is the largest de facto mental health facility in Texas.
Of the more than 8,000, 75 percent have a mental health indicator.
Thirty-five percent are currently taking medication for mental illness.
“We do have a dedicated floor for individuals that are more severe in their diagnosis. We have 180 beds which care to these individuals,” said Gomez.
The county also has a program that allows law enforcement to divert people with mental illness, who have committed low-level, non-violent offenses, to a place to get help instead of booking them into the county jail.
For those facing a crisis, visit https://www.theharriscenter.org/