QPP Extra: Divert to Where? Mental Health Policing in America

This Quality Policing Podcast Extra explores some of the best – and the worst – in policing of the mentally ill in America.

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There are ten times more people with serious mental illnesses in America’s prisons and jails than in state mental hospitals. Some of our nation’s largest psychiatric in-patient clinics are in county jails in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York.

We’ve heard that about one in four people arrested in America suffer from both severe mental illness and drug or alcohol abuse. But that number only scratches the surface of the problem: the bigger problem might well be the people with mental illness who aren’t arrested.

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People like Floyd, a clinically depressed 64-year old homeless man with broken ribs, sleeping one October morning on the bench of a picnic table in J.A. Carr park in Euless, Texas. Floyd has given us his permission to tell this part of his story.

In this intense, revealing episode, we’ll hear Floyd make an outcry of suicidal ideation while speaking with officers from the Behavioral Intervention Unit of the Hurst, Euless, and Bedford Police Departments in Texas, between Dallas and Fort Worth- which just might be America’s most progressive, proactive mental health unit.

We learn how the history of mental health funding in America has seen budget cuts from every administration – Democratic and Republican alike – since Lyndon B. Johnson, and how that has resulted in the current mess: that cops, not healthcare professionals, are the first responders to mental health crises in America, and jails are our nation’s mental asylums.

This also ran as a Sunday feature article in the Dallas Morning News on Sunday, November 5. In addition to Floyd, we hear from the following people, in order of their appearance:

Ken Bennett. The Mental Health Coordinator for the cities of Hurst, Euless, and Bedford Police Departments in north-central Texas, Ken began to work on this problem almost a decade ago, when he worked under the auspices of Tarrant County MHMR as part of the Hurst Crisis Intervention Team Model, which he helped create. Three years ago, the HEB Model discussed here was created.

Former Officer Colt Remington. A Texas Mental Health Peace Officer who recently resigned from service, Colt Remington (yes, that’s his real name) discusses the pressures in the field at another agency. He describes the harrowing experience of talking a man holding a loaded handgun into putting the gun down and taking help from Colt, only to be disciplined by supervisors for, ‘not shooting the guy.”

Tarrant County Sheriff Bill Waybourn. Elected sheriff of a county with two million residents, 41 municipalities and 51 agencies that handle the mentally ill, Sheriff Waybourn discusses some of the innovative programs that Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office has put in place, and where they are going with their programs.

Officer Casey Sanders. A Texas Mental Health Peace Officer and a Euless patrol officer, we hear Officer Sanders interacting with people on the street, and in interviews. He describes how, when meeting with mentally ill citizens, he and other team members, “…look at their mannerisms, their state of hygiene, their living conditions, whether they’re carrying on a cohesive conversation, whether their thoughts are organized… we make all these behavioral analyses as were talking to them, and we form the diagnostic impression on that.”

Former Officer Haley Stewart. We went to the police academy together. She worked at a county hospital as a Mental Health Police Officer. Now she’s pre-law at Texas Wesleyan, interning for the county mental health court judge. When she passes the bar, she wants to practice mental-health-law.

Related imageThe ER trauma nurse. We find her in the ER, where she recognized me and gave me a hug. She helps with Floyd’s intake and works to understand Floyd’s mental and physical symptoms.

Corporal Nova – the Tarrant County Jail’s comfort dog, a hilariously cute, 10-month-old Labradoodle. She was given earlier this Spring to Sheriff Waybourn by former Dallas Cowboys Player Jay Novacek, and his wife, Amy Novacek. Nova’s full name is Corporal Mattea Quinn Nova.


Produced and reported by Nick Selby
Audio editing & post-production: Nick Selby and Michael Ables

With heartfelt thanks for significant production assistance to Ken Bennett and Casey Sanders; Euless Police Chief Michael Brown; Hurst Police Chief Steve Moore; and Bedford Police Chief Jeff Gibson. Thanks as well to Danielle Rose, and Steve Cooper. And to Eric Olson for, “drive-up windows for executions,” which might be my favorite line in the story.