Monday, December 31, 2007

Austin Police Department Assist Those with Mental Illness

From the Austin American-Statesman, December 29, 2007:

Protecting and serving the mentally ill: Austin police crisis officers strain to fill gaps in mental health care in the face of budget cuts, growing caseload

Joshunda Sanders

Willie, 71, was muttering to himself underneath a dying palm tree in his Clarksville front yard when Austin police officers Donnie Williamson and Kim Devitt showed up. He glanced at the familiar white car, then scurried into his house, screaming, "What'd I do now?"

Williamson approached Willie's door. "We're just here to check on you," he said calmly. "Go home now!" the older man yelled, slamming his door shut.

Like hundreds of other mentally ill people in Austin, Willie's not an immediate danger to anyone. (His last name has been withheld because he was not charged with any wrongdoing.) Still, he demands a lot of attention and resources, mainly those of the Austin Police Department's Crisis Intervention Team. Since 1998, police officers have visited him more than 20 times, trying to get him help or medication, to no avail. Williamson, a 21-year-veteran of the department who has been with the crisis team for five years, said, "You have to switch hats between police work and social work."

The team of six officers, created in 1999, follows up on attempted suicide calls, or visits people who either don't have or won't take medication. Patients with immediate needs are taken to psychiatric emergency services run by Austin Travis County Mental Health Mental Retardation Center. If officers take someone to be treated, they follow up with home visits and with center workers to make sure people are getting the help they need.

In the past, officers could take people like Willie to the state hospital. Now, they can only drop them at Brackenridge and Seton hospital emergency rooms. Willie is one of an estimated 900 people expected to need treatment in the next year who might not get it, according to the county. The Austin Travis County Mental Health Mental Retardation Center cut the number of Austin State Hospital beds available to mentally ill people in the city and county from 110 to about 63 this year because of inadequate state funding.

When Willie started tossing things around and screaming uncontrollably inside his house, Williamson said to Devitt, "We better go."

To no one in particular, he said, "I'd love to put him in the hospital to get him the medication he needs, but there's nothing illegal about being crazy in your own house."

Austin police officers work alongside nine Travis County sheriff's deputies on the Austin State Hospital campus.

About 200 officers on the force are trained to deal with the mentally ill as part of their normal duties, but the crisis team goes beyond that, said police Sgt. Michael Turner, who oversees the unit. Every year, Turner said, his unit faces caseload increases, possibly fueled by out-of-county clients. In 2006, officers wrote 5,685 reports; as of this November, the unit had 6,031 reports, about 20 per officer per week. "It's hard and can be frustrating work," Williamson said. "But I try to look at it as if this person was my kid — how would I want someone to deal with him?"

Devitt tried a similar approach with 51-year-old Marissa, communicating through a rickety apartment windowpane. The electricity had been shut off at her tiny downtown apartment, so when temperatures dropped, she had no heat. Her solution: burning charcoal in bowls inside her house.

"We don't want you burning this place up," Devitt warned. "You just call us if your lights go out again." Devitt and Williamson backed away from the apartment, cautiously eyeing the old wood before they got back into their police car and drove to their next visit.;445-3630

MORE ON THIS STORY: On the beat with the Crisis Intervention Unit

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