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Police Officer works on getting mentally ill help rather than jail time

The call might come from a restaurant owner when a patron can't pay
the bill.  Maybe an office worker sees a disoriented man, wandering in the
traffic downtown.  Or an apartment dweller might call about someone running
naked through the complex.

It could be a man brandishing a knife at a shopping center.

When Houston police officers respond to a disturbance, they have no
way of knowing whether mental illness is the cause. But, thanks to
some determined police work, those who are suffering from mental
illness have a much better chance of ending up in a hospital rather than
at the county jail.

Officer Frank Webb started trying to change department procedures
for handling the mentally ill about five years ago. At the time, a mentally
ill person would be taken to the county jail to wait until a seven-page
warrant was filled out and signed by a judge. Hours or days later, he or
she could then be taken to the hospital for evaluation.

The efforts of Webb and a number of other police officers, mental
health advocates and other county agencies have paid off in a
streamlined procedure that means the ill person can be taken straight to
the hospital.

Webb said in most situations the new procedure means police officers
can take a mentally ill person directly to Ben Taub Hospital for
evaluation. They can fill out a three-page warrant, which is then faxed to
a judge for a signature. If a serious crime has been committed, the
officer will still take the person to jail, where a forensic psychologist
handles the case.

Families of those who suffer from mental illness are grateful for the
change. The new procedure, they say, is a much more humane way of
dealing with such a crisis.

For his efforts in realizing this change in procedure, as well as for his
role in organizing a training course on mental illness for police officers,
the Texas Alliance for the Mentally Ill recognized Webb with its 1997
Support/Advocacy Award. He was also honored by the Mental Health
Association with its Helen Farabee Community Leadership Award.

"We've made significant improvements, " Webb said. "But there's still a
lot to do. "

Webb said in 1997 HPD adopted a 16-hour mandatory training course
on mental illness, which over 400 officers have taken. Another
16-hour elective course is available.

Webb said patrol officers need special training in communicating with
the mentally ill, the role of the Mental Health Mental Retardation
Authority, other services available and how to respond effectively to a
mental health crisis.

He said he has been able to help the mental health community
understand the need for unpopular police procedures that guarantee
officer safety. He said families may find it easier to accept that their
member has been taken to the hospital in handcuffs when they realize it
is a standard part of police procedure.

Webb believes the training course has helped officers realize that those
with mental illness are rarely violent. Since officers become involved
only in a crisis, they see the small percentage of violent incidents that do
occur in this population.

He said the course, developed by a state law enforcement committee,
included a role-playing exercise in which officers experienced what it
might be like to hear voices in your head, a symptom of schizophrenia.
They also learned about the medications that can help those with
mental illness.

Webb said not all of the 5,000-plus officers have taken the course, but
he believes those who have are beginning to make an impact on how
mental illness is handled on the streets.

Webb also works on a committee that is trying to establish a special
mental health unit in which a police officer and a mental health worker
would respond to mental health disturbances.

The committee is part of a collaboration of mental health and criminal
justice agencies to identify barriers between the two systems. It will
further efforts of the Mental Health Association, which received a
federal grant to localize and build financial support for a program that
had been successful in other communities.

Webb and others also are trying to involve more hospitals in accepting
the mentally ill for evaluation. Sometimes, he said, Ben Taub's eight
beds fill and the hospital goes on drive-by status for mental health
evaluations.

"It's just something I keep plugging at, " Webb said. "It seems like there
are more mentally ill on the streets nowadays. "

 


 

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