How iPads Changed a Police Force’s Response to Mental Illness

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Photo by Sean MacEntee via Flickr

Some sheriff’s deputies in Houston have been using a new tool to respond to calls that involve mentally ill individuals.

An iPad.

In December 2017, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office in Houston, Tx., began equipping deputies with iPads as part of a pilot program aimed at developing new forms of intervention for mentally ill individuals who become involved with law enforcement.

The first phase of the program, involving three deputies, has now been completed, and participants say it’s a success.

“We wanted to make sure the technology works, the software works, and the concept works, and it worked perfectly,” Dr. Avrim Fishkind, CEO of JSA Health Telepsychiatry , and one of the pilot program’s partners, told The Crime Report.

JSA Health provided the psychiatrists for the program, while Cloud 9, an Austin-based tech company, developed the software, named Cloud911.

Under the program, when deputies equipped with tablets arrive on the scene of a mental health emergency, the person in crisis is offered the option of talking to a psychiatrist through the Cloud 911 app on the deputies’ iPads.

These sessions are called “telepsychiatry appointments,” and they typically last 20 minutes.


A patient uses an iPad for a “telepsychiatry appointment.” Photo courtesy Harris County Sheriff’s Office

By the end of the session, the clinician makes a recommendation. Medication may be prescribed on the spot and picked up by a first responder if deemed necessary. Sometimes, no meds are necessary and a situation is deescalated enough for police to leave the scene.

If the clinician or first responder finds it necessary to take the distressed individual to a psychiatric hospital because de-escalation failed, the Cloud911 app can locate a facility with an available bed. This cuts down on time as officers no longer need to find out which hospital has availability.

The program’s organizers say this enables police to get back to their beat faster, and enables individuals experiencing mental health episodes to avoid arrest.

“One thing we learned very quickly is that people adapt to the technology very fast, the officers and patients,” Dr. Fishkind said. “I’ve done interviews with the patient lying on the ground who held the iPad and talked to me like it was nothing.

“So one of the best parts is the adoption of the technology is nearly 100 percent. We’ve had almost no refusals during the pilot.”

Frank Webb, Harris County’s Mental Health and Jail Diversion Bureau Manager, admitted the program faced initial skepticism among some mental health professionals.

“We did have some who said, ‘oh you know, if you have someone who’s psychotic, they’re not going to use it because they’re going to be freaked out by it,’ and that was not the case at all,” he told The Crime Report.

Dr. Fishkind provided one example of the interactions he witnessed during the course of the pilot program, between officers and a mother whose adolescent daughter was depressed and suicidal.

“She had tried to get in to see a psychiatrist but was told it would be a couple weeks, and here she is in her house talking to a psychiatrist because the deputy had the iPad and she could direct access him right there in her house,” he recalled.

According to national statistics provided by Cloud 9, “Ten percent of 911 calls are mental health crises, which ought to be handled by clinicians, freeing up police and avoiding tragedies. Sixty four percent of jail inmates have mental illness, making jails the largest mental health facilities in the U.S. The cost of incarcerating mentally ill citizens is three to five times what community health treatment would cost, and the total cost of mental illness being handled by our emergency rooms and jails each year is around $45 billion.”

Dr. Fishkind noted that the money saved by diverting mentally troubled individuals from jail had helped sell it to county officials concerned about the strains on their budget.

According to Webb, additional money might be forthcoming from the county and even other sources “because they see the value” of the program.

The county’s Center for Mental Health, along with Intellectual Disabilities and Autism Services, the Local Mental Health Authority, together have applied for a grant from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), under its Law Enforcement and Behavioral Health program. The community health organization would provide additional funds for phase two, Webb said, but he added “we’re going to do phase 2 regardless.”

The next phase, expected to last six months, would provide tablets for 25 deputies.

John Ramsey is a TCR news intern. Readers’ comments are welcome.

3 thoughts on “How iPads Changed a Police Force’s Response to Mental Illness

  1. For all the reasons I would editorially avoid “the” Blacks, I would editorially avoid “the” mentally ill.

    • Sigh, yes. I would take that one step further and ask that we use person-centered language. For example, it’s not “mentally ill”, but rather “people with mental illness” or “people who are mentally ill”. Especially with mental illness. The biggest part of this iPad program is that it humanizes the people in crisis. Referring to people with mental illness as “the mentally ill” undoes all the good work of this program.

  2. This is a very good pilot program – and everyone needs to remember that they are dealing with people first, not labels or “throw aways”….we all deserve to be treated with dignity and compassion, whatever health issues we might have.
    This idea could also help police with a protocol for responding to domestic that it would not be a guessing game as to who to believe and how to respond….it would make these calls easier to respond to, give clear instructions as to how to handle the calls, and what information about help to put into the hands of those who fit the criteria for needing it…and it’s been proven already that such protocols save lives!!! and every life does matter! People do not chose to have a mental illness any more than they would chose to be abused….so we need to come up with solutions in our society…so unnecessary shootings and school shootings and other such tragedies might be avoided in the future. Our children, and all people in society deserve that much. And, I realize that being a police officer is not easy and there are huge risks – so finding ways to help them serve better makes so much sense!! Bravo to all who contributed to this project…and may many more places follow suit….Thank you all!

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