By Aaron Reiss
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By the time more police cars arrived at the scene, Guillory had broken his pipe on a cruiser, and threw the pieces at officers. Guillory was shot with a taser but didn't go down. He did, however, run at officers, causing one cop to fire his pistol, hitting another officer and Guillory. Guillory died from the gunshot wounds.
It was the second death of a mentally ill person at the hands of Houston police officers in several months, because in May of that year, a 42-year-old woman named Marnell Villarreal walked into police headquarters downtown with a knife, stabbing herself in the head, asking officers to shoot her because, "I want to end this."
When she charged officers, one of them shot Villarreal with a taser, and another shot her with a pistol and she died.
"She came into HPD all the time making claims that laser beams were being shot through her head and her food was poisoned," Lee says. "She had already been given a warning not to come back to headquarters, because not too long before that incident occurred, she came in and had a gun on her."
Lee continues, "She was an example of someone that was obviously very sick and was somehow slipping through the cracks."
It was a tough stretch for the Houston Police Department's mental health unit, which prides itself as being the largest and one of the most progressive mental health divisions in the country.
The unit was founded in 1999, starting with another pilot program that required Houston police officers to receive eight hours of training in dealing with mentally ill people. The mental health unit grew, and today, cadets are required to get 40 hours of "crisis intervention training" before graduating from police academy.
One of the most celebrated programs in the unit, implemented in 2008, is the Crisis Intervention Response Teams, which pair patrol officers and clinicians from MHMRA. That program became permanent, receiving full funding, in February of 2009. Lee has talked about mental health and law enforcement in front of the state Senate's Finance Committee and in Denver at the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference.
After the shooting deaths of Guillory and Villarreal, a mental health task force was formed. Members included Houston City Council member Adrian Garcia, now the Harris County sheriff; George Parnham, the attorney who represented Andrea Yates; Dr. Steven Schnee, the executive director of MHMRA; and Steve Williams, director of Houston's Health and Human Services. One result of the task force was the Chronic Consumer Stabilization Initiative.
The Houston Police Department, in its reports, describes the chronic consumer population this way: "Oftentimes, these individuals would be in a mental health crisis because they were not taking their medications or they would find themselves involved in a disturbance where they would call the police or someone else would call on their behalf. Officers usually found no real solution other than making an arrest or committing them for an emergency evaluation."
The report continues, "Then, within weeks or even days, the same chronic consumers would be back out on the streets or at their homes reverting back to their crisis modes. This 'revolving door' process has always been a perpetual cycle with no viable alternatives or methods to disrupt these patterns. There has never been a strategy developed to evaluate and research the root causes for all of these chronic consumers making persistent calls to the police department."
"Instead of just having a better reaction to these people, we want to start working on prevention," Lee says. "Most of these folks have been in the mental health system for years, but their services have expired or they just don't cooperate, and there are so many people that need services that if folks don't cooperate, they tend to get dropped. These people are so sick now, because of their illness, they're living under the bridge and eating pigeons in the zoo. We have to realize that there is a certain population that is so sick that they can't take care of themselves. We wouldn't let mentally retarded people wander downtown and live under the bridge. Society wouldn't accept it."
The first problem with the chronic consumer program was finding caseworkers crazy enough to take the job. Lee, along with Ann Macleod, who runs the program for MHMRA, tried to find two caseworkers with master's degrees already working for Harris County.
"We found that people with advanced education who worked their way up to a desk job don't really like to leave the desk," Lee says. "Especially not to deal with people like this. We need to send them to some bad locations, places we don't send our officers to a lot."
The department had to look for alternative choices. The first person to hire on was Maire, a 55-year-old woman who'd worked as a probation officer and spent most of her life working as a caseworker and investigator for Child Protective Services in Galveston County. In the early months of the job, Maire did a lot of random knocking on doors trying to find people without working phone numbers or solid addresses.