Is Harris County Jail the Place for A Mentally Troubled Teen?: Mind-sets

Not everyone buys into crisis intervention for the mentally ill

On the day before Halloween this year, a mentally ill man named Kenneth Green was killed by SWAT officers at his Houston home after his brother called HPD's nonemergency number for help.

Patrol officers, trained in crisis intervention, arrived at the house to find Green had locked himself in a bedroom. His brother told police that Green carried a pellet gun. The officers assured Green's family that he wouldn't be shot, but because he had a gun, the officers were bound by policy to call SWAT.

"Whether you're CIT or not, you have to go to that next level," says Lieutenant Mike Lee, the unit supervisor for the crisis intervention team.

A mandatory call to SWAT when weapons are involved is one of the procedures that still exist in the department that undercut the safeguards of crisis intervention, according to Lee.

As officers talked with the family in the living room, Green looked out of the bedroom window holding the air rifle and snipers killed him.

"When SWAT rolls out, they just clear things out," Lee says.

The first crisis intervention movement in Memphis started after a death similar to Green's, and Lee says his department also tries to learn from tragedies and small mistakes. An ultimate goal is keeping mentally ill suspects out of jail.

Avoiding such arrests not only saves jail space for serious criminals but also saves the county cash. According to numbers from Mental Health America of Greater Houston, court costs for a felony are $3,314 and a misdemeanor costs $1,796, plus an additional $90 a day for time in the Harris County Jail — $16,200 for a six-month sentence.

Even at the $834 a day it costs at the short-term NeuroPsychiatric Center — usual stays are 23 hours (or less than a day), although some patients stay as long as three days — the overall costs are still considerably less than when one of these people goes into the jail and court ­system.

But not all officers are fans of the CIT effort.

"They feel that this should not be a law enforcement problem, and want to know why officers are being sent to these [mental health] calls," says Michael Chimney, a 25-year veteran of the police department. "They think it should be an MHMRA [Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority] problem, because if we have all this money available, why not give it to the people who want to do it."

Because of his work on the mental illness beat, Chimney is a common butt of jokes from other officers. When cops at the South Central Patrol substation see Chimney in the hallway, they say, "Hey, it's the Crazy Man!"

"I used to come back at them hard, but now I take it as a compliment, and I tell them, 'You're goddarn right,'" Chimney says. "Call me 'crazy,' but it's what I enjoy doing."

A new HPD pilot program pairs CIT officers with MHMRA counselors, and Chimney's partner is Mike Erickson, who worked at the NeuroPsychiatric Center for about six years.

They patrol in an unmarked car for a full shift but take an average of four calls a day, because they spend more time talking with the suspect and documenting the scene. After six months of the program, Chimney and Erickson have taken eight people to jail, and those were because of warrants.

"It's almost a 180-degree change from the typical police mind-set," says Frank Webb, a senior officer in the crisis intervention unit. Webb is nicknamed the Godfather because he's the boss of bosses among CIT officers. He served as the department representative on Houston's Mental Health America task force.

"[Police] are taught very authoritatively, very physical and very commanding," he says. "In these situations, we're asking our officers to do the opposite: Stand back, don't get in their face and don't put hands on them if you don't have to."

According to Lee, changing the entire department to that mentality is likely impossible.

"It's kind of hard to get SWAT to change their ways or get them to accept any training that isn't theirs," he says. "You're trying to do everything you can to tone things down and have patience to de-escalate, but when you roll up and jump out with military weapons, it's not always in our best interest."

 
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