When a law enforcement officer responds to a car accident they know exactly what to do once on scene. When responding to other routine calls the officer can run through a familiar procedure or checklist and anticipate next steps.
But going out on mental health calls or responding to people in a mental health crisis presents a unique set of unknowns to officers. The call may be for someone threatening suicide, from a family member concerned because a loved one is refusing to eat or take medication or because a resident is running through the streets while talking to someone who isn’t physically there.
Unlike a car accident or a drug arrest there isn’t a one-size-fits-all procedure for how law enforcement responds to mental health calls. There are best practices, but what worked on a prior call may not be what’s needed on the new call.
“You have no idea how this person will react to you being on their doorstep. They may be ludic, they may be talkative or they may be aggressive towards you,” Gatesville Police Chief Nathan Gohlke said in a Sept. 21 interview. “That’s where you’ve got to figure out what are you going to do and how you are going to handle this situation.”
One of the decisions a peace officer has to make is whether the person needs to be transported for emergency detention. The Texas Health and Safety Code allows a licensed peace officer to take a person into custody without a warrant if the officer has reason to believe that the person has a mental illness, and because of that mental illness is a substantial risk to themselves or others.
If the officer’s assessment shows a person meets that criteria, the officer is required to transport the person to the nearest inpatient mental health facility. There is not a facility within Coryell County, so local law enforcement, including GPD, have to transport the person to Bell, Williamson or McLennan County.
These calls can take anywhere from three to five hours, depending on how far away the available bed is and how long the wait is to get the person checked-in to the facility.
For GPD, who typically has two to three officers on patrol at any given time, having one—or in some cases two—officers off patrol for that long is a huge impact.
Gohlke said GPD is currently averaging one to two mental health calls per day. The department has responded to 27 mental health calls in the first three weeks of Sept., according to data provided by GPD. Not every call results in the person being transported for emergency detention.
In an effort to become more proactive with the increasing rate of mental health calls GPD recently added Eric Fox as a reserve police officer. Fox will work for 16 hours per month at no cost to the city and in exchange GPD will hold Fox’s commission, something he needs to continue to be a licensed police officer in Texas.
Fox has 27 years of law enforcement experience, including 20 years with the Killeen Police Department. On Sept. 3 he retired from the Coryell County Sheriff’s Office where he was the sergeant in charge of the mental health deputies.
Fox will not be a uniformed officer going out on patrol but will focus on data, training and follow ups on previous calls.
“My goal is to go through the call sheets, as often as I’m able, go out and do some follow ups, see how people are doing,” Fox said in a Sept. 21 interview. “(I’ll) try to keep them from deteriorating to the point where police need to be called, to where we can get them in services before hand so that’s a call for service that doesn’t need to be put in.”
The hope is that by following up with people who have been in crisis, letting them know what resources are available, they won’t have repeat calls for the same person.
“For the most part when you have the diagnosis…those don’t go away,” Fox said. “It’s a constant battle of making sure you are taking what you are supposed to, doing what you are supposed to, have a support system in place and then we will try and help out where we can.”
Fox will also use his experience and training to help better equip GPD officers who take mental health calls.
“A big push is to be able to train the officers how to recognize and how to deal with those types of things,” Gohlke said. “And not just going to state mandated classes, but having a real-word training here in Gatesville.”
Fox said when working at the Sheriff’s Office he sent all the mental health deputies under him to crisis negotiation school.
“I felt those negotiation skills of active listening went hand-in-hand when dealing with folks in mental health crisis,” Fox said.
While he won’t have that luxury at GPD, Fox can teach the officers the skills he learned and how best to apply those skills during mental health calls.
Fox said he also plans to give GPD officers a resource card so that when they find themselves out on a mental health call they have options.
He has already taught some officers about the Mobile Crisis Outreach Team, a State program that can provide face-to-face help to people who are at risk of harming themselves or others. Fox said an officer can contact MCOT and get help determining if the person needs to be transported for emergency detention.
“This came in at the right time,” Gohlke said. “It will help us work through this transition and hopefully give us a better mental health program.”
The Mobile Crisis Outreach Team is available to anyone, not just law enforcement. If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis you can call MCOT at 1-800-888-4036 254-298-7000, option 1. The services are available 24/7/365.