An extraordinary effort is underway in three Texas cities to proactively police the mentally ill.
The Behavioral Intervention Unit (BIU) in the cities of Hurst, Euless and Bedford, in the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan region, is based on a modified Crisis Intervention Team program developed about a decade ago by local mental health coordinator Ken Bennett and the Hurst Police Department, which sought better integration of mental health clinicians and police.
The Behavior Intervention Unit builds on that by deploying teams of clinicians and cops who patrol each weekday, seeking out those with mental illness to intervene before there is a crisis.
The BIU addresses a problem faced by law enforcement throughout the United States: As mental health funding has been cut and cut, not only have police become the first responders to mental illness in America, but jails have become our asylums.
As communities seek to divert people from jail to the mental health system, they increasingly find that there are simply no beds available in the mental hospitals. So, in a nation without mental health resources and a strong desire to divert the mentally ill from jail, the question becomes, “Divert to where?”
See also: “Proactive Policing Credited With Crime Reductions” (TCR Nov 9 2017)
Our Quality Policing podcasts cover issues of good policing, spurred by news developments around the U.S.
In this episode, we meet Floyd, a suicidal and homeless 64-year old man with broken ribs, as he is being helped by the BIU. We hear how Floyd is transported to the county hospital for mental health observation, patched up physically, and we follow his journey towards homeless outreach and help.
Soon after, we meet Colt Remington—yes, that’s his real name—an officer who, after talking down a suicidal man holding a gun to his own head, and convincing the man to put the gun down and get some help, was disciplined by his supervisor for not shooting the suicidal man.
This continuum—from the absolute wrong way to the absolute right way—is representative of how “mental health policing” is done in America. Sadly, there are many more police agencies on the left side of that continuum (the reactive, “we’re-cops-not-social-workers” side).
The episode spells out why.
It explains how this is a bipartisan mess. Neither Democrat nor Republican administrations have done “better” at coping with the problem of mental illness. Every president since Lyndon Baines Johnson has cut funding to mental health care in America.
The results should concern all of us: There are ten times more seriously ill patients in America’s prisons and jails than in state and community hospitals.
But in Texas, we can point to examples that can be models for policing nationwide.
The story of this story began about six months ago, when I began speaking with Ken Bennett, the mental health coordinator for the three Northeast Tarrant County suburban police departments.
I had been looking to highlight the wide variation in police department responses to mental illness. Most agencies are still reactive. While many have embraced CIT training, very few have displayed the boldness of the Hurst/Euless/Bedford plan.
Particularly impressive was the proactive determination shown by the three cities and their leaders in establishing the program.
As I say in the podcast, there was no political cost to not implementing the Behavior Intervention Unit’s program.
There were several inspirations for the program. First, I recognized that the Sandra Bland Act, signed into law by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in June, could have a profound impact on how the U.S. handles mental illness.
The law requires jailers who learn of a patient’s mental illness to transport that patient to a mental health facility. But in writing about it—in the National Review and, along with Texas Mental Health Peace Officer Colt Remington in USA Today—I realized we needed to hear the people, to humanize the story.
Ken Bennett arranged for permission for me to ride out with and record the BIU teams in October, 2017.
First, we received a briefing from Tarrant County Sheriff Bill Waybourn.
“Our jail population this morning was 4,100; and 25 percent of those people are mental health patients,” he said. “They’re on mental health meds.”
Additional research added weight to our program. The National Alliance on Mental Illness should be everyone’s first step when researching mental illness in America. I spoke with current and former hospital staff at John Peter Smith Hospital near Fort Worth, as well as police, EMTs, and mental health attorneys.
Texas media have also done some great reporting. One example: Bud Kennedy’s work in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram .
But it was on the street that the challenges to police officers became clear.
“The first thing is to be very non-threatening, to establish that you’re there to help them,” Euless Officer Casey Sanders told us.
“You want to establish some rapport, where you can change their behavior, and that all begins with empathy.”
Unlike most clinicians, Ken Bennett has negotiated, face-to-face, with armed suicidal people. When he spotted Floyd in J.A. Carr Park, they had a long conversation before Floyd admitted being suicidal.
Floyd didn’t ask for help. Actually, his most pressing problem was broken ribs: Floyd could barely breathe and was wheezing. Bennett noticed a hospital band on Floyd’s wrist, and suggested the BIU transport Floyd back to John Peter Smith Hospital for treatment before going to homeless outreach.
Then Sanders recognized Floyd—Floyd’s appearance has changed over the past decade. Sanders’ face lit up. He was genuinely happy to see Floyd.
And I saw Sanders exude the empathy he had described. Even when he patted down Floyd for weapons, the officer continued a light-hearted chit-chat that Floyd responded to with openness and trust.
I thought about the will-power it took for Bennett to envision and create a job and a strategy no one asked him to create; to convince the chiefs of police, the city council, the mayors and the lawyers of three cities to try something so new you can’t even agree on how to measure success.
And I also thought about the risks that all those officials took in moving forward at all.
There was no political penalty for sticking with traditional policing. They built the mental health group anyway.
“This can be a very emotional job,” said Bennett. “Every call you deal with is someone who’s mentally unstable.
“We can’t save everyone. But if we do our jobs and we’re proactive, we’ll probably save more than if we just took a reactive approach.”
If you’d like to hear more, I invite you to listen to Sheriff Waybourn, Ken Bennett and the officers on the teams. Our podcast is available for download here, and also available on iTunes, Stitcher and other podcast outlets.
Nick Selby is a Texas police detective who investigates computer fraud and child exploitation. Also a cyber-security incident responder, he is co-author of Cyber Survival Manual: From Identity Theft to The Digital Apocalypse and Everything in Between; In Context: Understanding Police Killings of Unarmed Civilians; and Blackhatonomics: Understanding the Economics of Cybercrime; and technical editor of Investigating Internet Crimes: An Introduction to Solving Crimes in Cyberspace. He adapted his podcast script for a feature article for the Dallas Morning News, which ran on Nov. 5, 2017.
He welcomes comments from readers.