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Handcuffs or help? New Fort Worth police unit is working to reduce mental health calls

Jan 28, 2018 | BY Prescotte Stokes III

A woman in south Fort Worth took a dangerous mix of prescription and over-the-counter medications the morning of Jan. 23. She was home alone, with a hatchet, a knife, alcohol, a four-page suicide note and a revolver. And her two dogs.

She hadn’t harmed herself or anyone else — yet.

Inside an office building, Fort Worth police officer Kelly French studied 911 records and learned that the woman had called five times the day before, threatening suicide. French, a member of the department’s new Crisis Intervention Team, went to the woman’s home for a wellness check.

She and two other members of the team, a collaboration with Tarrant County My Health My Resources, arrived around midday.

French politely introduced herself and asked if she and her colleagues could come in.

The woman, who is not being named because of the nature of the calls, obliged, and for the next 40 minutes the team tried to talk her out of harming herself — and removed the weapons from the home.

“She had all the means to do any plan that she had mentioned in the past 24 hours to us,” French said. “She’s not going to call 911 again today. The resolution for this call has been made, so that takes that load of any other officer walking into the unknown.”

While MedStar units were called and the woman was brought to the emergency room at John Peter Smith Hospital, French’s presence limited the time and interaction the two Fort Worth police patrol officers spent on the incident.

Their only job was to transport the woman’s dogs to a friend’s house for safekeeping.

French and her team spent the next 30 minutes gathering the woman’s personal belongings, dog muzzles, dog food and the woman’s cellphone, which she wanted at the hospital with her.

The team then headed to JPS and filled out a mental application, which is a warrantless detention form, and completed a narrative of what happened. Before they could leave the hospital, they would wait another 35 minutes for a hospital police officer to relieve them from guard duty.

“I have to give a detailed narrative of everything she told us, so that way the counselors can have a good idea of what to treat her for,” said French. “Look around, these hospital officers are busy as well. So I don’t mind waiting.”

There was more work to do.

“I left her a property receipt and I’m heading to the property room to file all her items so she can get her things once she’s released,” French said. “Then I’ll go back to the office and fill out a detailed police report to have on file and make her a case folder.”

She headed for the property room about 3:30 p.m.

If French hadn’t decided to check in on the woman and she had instead called 911 again, it would’ve been a patrol officer at her door. And perhaps one with less training regarding mental health issues and who might have been needed on the streets to deal with other kinds of calls.

The team was formed in part because Fort Worth police want more relationship-building interaction with people who may have mental health issues, team supervisor Sgt. Marcus Povero said.

“Several deadly force instances that our officers had been involved in dealt with mental health consumers,” Povero said. “We ended up having to use deadly force against mental health consumers and they had to use deadly force against us. So, the chief of police made the decision to begin this unit to find ways to intervene before we get to those types of deadly force situations.”

According to 911 call records from the Fort Worth Police Department, patrol officers responded to about 286,657 calls in 2016 and 2017 . Of those, 9,443 were mental health related. That’s an average of 12.9 mental-health-related calls a day.

They carry labels: code 84 (suicide attempt), 84P (suicidal person-psych MHMR) or 84O (suicidal person-overdose). Most fall into the basic code 84.

For years, Fort Worth police patrol officers responded to those calls or assisted MHMR law liaisons if they needed assistance with a previously identified mental health patient. The newly formed team consists of six former patrol officers, one detective and a supervisor, all of whom have had additional training to become certified to deal with mental health “consumers.”

They work side by side in the same office building, with cubicles just a few feet away from the MHMR liaisons.

“Our CIT officers are familiar with these MHMR consumers because of our relationship with our law liaisons,” Povero said. “Our officers are more educated in how to deal with MHMR consumers more than your patrol officer who may not have all the information they need with a person with a mental health history.”

French usually starts her day analyzing the previous day’s 911 call log, looking for familiar names or addresses. She will usually cross- reference those names in the Fort Worth police database to see if the caller has a history with the department or may have already been assigned to a team member.

“I often worry about my clients from day to day,” French said. “No two days are alike though. And today I’m going to meet a stranger.”

The woman she encountered Jan. 23 had no history with the Fort Worth police or MHMR.

But after seeing how many calls had been made and reading the brief narratives typed into the system by the dispatchers, French decided to perform the wellness check.

She grabbed what she calls her ‘Blue Bible,’ a nearly 4-inch-thick notebook containing handwritten information and countless sticky notes, and headed out the door.

“She recently moved here,” French said. “Been having problems with her boyfriend and has been texting and calling family and friends saying she wants to end her life and how she was going to go about doing it.”

French, who drives an all-black car, wore a navy blue polo shirt and khaki pants. If it weren’t for the oversized orange and white Fort Worth police logo on the shirt and the utility belt with a handgun on it, you might not realize she’s a police officer.

Povero said that is by design.

“The cars are more subdued than normal police cars. We don’t have the blue uniform with the badge and the patches and everything because we want to make someone comfortable,” Povero said. “We give them what we a call a soft uniform.”

French said, “It helps a lot. They usually think we’re security guards.”

Povero said the role of the team’s officer is geared toward starting a dialogue, not looking for reasons to make an arrest.

“They’ll do a in-house visit, they’ll talk with them and see how they’re doing,” Povero said. “They’ll make sure that they are on their medications and that they’re keeping their appointments. So, it’s really just a check-up.”

If they find conditions at the home that are not healthy, the team officers file a mental application with JPS.

“We take them into custody and bring them to JPS, where they are given an assessment and they can receive treatment,” Povero said. “We can do that, a police officer can do that, but in the past a law liaison would have to go through a judge to do that. Now, since we have officers with them, those officers can do that right on the scene.”

It still doesn’t excuse a mentally ill or potentially mentally ill person from going to jail for a crime.

If a someone commits a crime, they still must be arrested and taken to jail. If police determine that mental illness played a role in the crime, they will fill out a mental health application and a JPS counselor will be assigned to the case, making in-jail visits.

Once the person posts bail and can return home, a CIT officer will be assigned the case and start the process of performing follow-ups.

Gauging the success of a program like this one is difficult. While reducing crime is the overall goal, the effect is indirect.

Povero said they launched the team in September 2017 and plan to gather six months of data detailing the number of mental health calls to see if there has been a reduction. The other key statistic will be showing how many of those calls a patrol officer would normally handle.

“Then we can prove that if we can increase staffing here we can, No. 1, increase safety,” Povero said. “No. 2, reduce the number of violent confrontations that officers are having with mental-health consumers and put officers back into duty to answer calls for service.”

Crisis intervention training has stabilized the number of mental health calls for the Hurst Police Department during the past two years.

Hurst Assistant Police Chief Steven Niekamp said during those two years the department averaged around 200 mental health-related 911 calls each year. They filed 157 mental applications yearly.

“The calls aren’t really going up and the mental apps are staying the same,” Niekamp said. “I think it’s working.”

Every patrol officer goes through mental health peace officer training programs. In 2014, the department began the Hurst-Euless-Bedford Crisis Intervention program.

“We’re small enough that we don’t need specialty officers (law liaisons) anymore,” Niekamp said. “It’s worked so well that we’ve hired a former TC-MHMR liaison as a full-time coordinator between the three cities (of) Hurst, Bedford and Euless.”

Povero said he hopes Fort Worth can eventually mimic the Houston Police Department’s Crisis Mental Health Team. Houston police have 12 full-time CIT units. Houston has the largest co-responder program, in which an officer and clinician ride together as partners, of all police departments in the United States.

In Fort Worth, one mental health crisis was averted thanks to intervention by French and her team members. The woman will be counseled at JPS before returning home.

In about two weeks, French will do her first follow-up with her newest client to make sure everything is OK.

“We’re going to get her to where she knows the resources available to her,” French said. “That’s the outcome. Her seeing a different side: that we do care and we don’t want her to die.”

star-telegram.com

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