Texas police alter approach to mentally disabled

By

BEDFORD, Texas (AP) — The first time officer Monique Hall met Amy Cook, she was in a hospital bed recovering from a suicide attempt.

Cook spent a combined 35 days in two hospitals before being released.

Soon after, she began meeting with officers from the Bedford Police Department's Repeat Victimization Unit, who worked with Cook and persuaded her to take medications to help control her mental disability.

She lost weight, stopped using illegal drugs and alcohol and began sleeping six hours a night. None of that would have happened without the help of Bedford police, Cook said.

"It was not a good thing I did but I'm glad I did it," said Cook, whose name has been changed to protect her identity. "If I hadn't done it (the suicide attempt) I'd probably be going back to JPS (hospital) or dead or maybe I would've been sent to Wichita Falls" state mental hospital.

Bedford police Chief Roger Gibson said he created the unit about three years ago to help break a pattern that was becoming all too familiar in the Fort Worth suburb. Police were repeatedly arresting the same people for the same problems, Gibson said.

"We had officers who did not have the opportunity to deal with the underlying causes of the issues they were facing," Gibson told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (http://bit.ly/1fCnQu1 ). "We would walk out of these houses having done our job and not having made the situation any better for the next officer who had to come to that house."

Gibson said he believed that if officers could get mentally handicapped people and their families to work with them — really sit down and listen and seek out solutions and community resources — they could reduce the number of people they funneled into the Tarrant County Jail and area hospitals.

He found three — Cpl. Shane Bean and officers Onay Nunez and Monique Hall — and the unit was born.

The officers, accompanied by mental health professionals, visit residents to make sure they are current with their medications and therapy. They listen to the problems that teens might be having at school, and maybe give a kid a ride to a football game if Mom or Dad is busy.

"It's like community policing on steroids," said Bean, the victimization unit supervisor.

Ken Bennett, a liaison officer for Mental Health Mental Retardation of Tarrant County, accompanies officers when they are making house calls in Bedford and trains officers in crisis intervention and mental health evaluation techniques.

The classes teach officers how to document and categorize symptoms of a mental disability, Bennett said.

"We have case after case of people who have talked about trying to shoot officers before who are now welcoming them into their homes," Bennett said. "The more we show up on scene the better those interactions become. These officers want to know that when these people are released they are stabilized. I think bringing the police in at this level is instrumental in having a good outcome."

Bean said the numbers showing that the program might be working are slowly starting to materialize.

More than three-quarters of people with mental health issues who were contacted by the unit in 2012 did not have to be contacted by police in 2013, Bean said.

Bean said officers get to know the families so well they can identify "trigger" dates, like the anniversary of the loss of a loved one.

"There was one woman who generated a number of calls and Hall figured out that they were coming every Wednesday," Bean said. "It turned out Wednesday was her day off."

The approach Bedford is taking is also being examined in the mental health community.

Tarrant County MHMR, the Tarrant County Sheriff's Department and Mental Health Connection officials have identified 85 people with diagnoses of a mental disability in the past three years who have been arrested more than 14 times, according to a report produced last year.

The intervention techniques being used by Bedford police may have some value in helping that population stay out of jail and the hospital emergency psychiatric unit, said Ramey Heddins, assistant director of MHMR of Tarrant County.

"Anytime you have an officer doing what Bedford is doing you have positive outcomes," Heddins said. "The goal is to keep them out of the hospital and keep them out of jail and focus on getting them treatment in the community. It's cheaper and they will have better outcomes. Now when the officer comes to the door, it's not like they are coming to get me. They just want to see how I'm doing."

Phil Floyd said he credits Bedford police — specifically officer Hall — for helping one of his seven children, a 15-year-old boy with Asperger's syndrome.

The boy would run away regularly and cause problems with his siblings and other students at school. He had seen psychiatrists who tried different medications, but nothing seemed to work.

Until Hall stepped in.

"The mental health system did not help our situation, but she did," Floyd said. "Hall is a friend to my children in an authoritarian position. She's firm when she needs to be and supportive when she needs to be. There's the Hollywood version of what police do and none of them are like officer Hall. Every community needs someone like her on the force."

___

Information from: Fort Worth Star-Telegram, http://www.star-telegram.com

©2014 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.