Public Safety & Homeland Security

New El Paso Mental Health Crisis Response Team Could Lower Police Shootings and Save Lives

Crisis intervention teams, or critical incident teams, are made up of licensed police officers who respond to emergency calls involving mentally ill people.

by Elida S. Perez, El Paso Times, Texas / April 9, 2018
PA Wire/PA Images

(TNS) - A potentially lifesaving program that seeks to change the way El Paso police respond to emergency calls that deal with mentally ill individuals is set to launch by year’s end.

City and mental health partners in the meantime are working behind the scenes to establish policies and specialized training curriculum that will serve as the foundation for the new crisis intervention teams.

Crisis intervention teams, or critical incident teams, are made up of licensed police officers who respond to emergency calls involving mentally ill people. The officers are typically paired with licensed clinical workers who help get individuals crisis treatment and services instead of jail time or possible injury or death.

Assistant Police Chief Patrick Maloney said the department’s team should be in training by October and in operation by early December. The team will have 14 officers and 14 clinical workers from the Emergence Health Network. The agency, which opened in 1966, is the area’s mental health authority and the largest mental health provider in El Paso County.

“Having these officers along with these trained Emergence Health Network employees in the field with our officers will be a valuable resource to help deal with these calls,” Maloney said.

The city is working on a memorandum of understanding with Emergence.

“I believe mental health is a big issue in the community and a good number of calls we go to deal with mental health issues,” Maloney said.

Police respond to nearly 300,000 calls a year, according to the department’s annual reports.

The department is working to refine data on the number of calls that involve mentally ill persons or people experiencing “mental instability” as it prepares to launch the team, Deputy City Manager Dionne L. Mack, who oversees the police department, said in an email.

In 2017, the department reported 1,943 emergency detention orders where a person is taken into custody if the officer believes that the person is mentally ill and may be at substantial risk of serious harm to themselves or others, Mack said.

That same year, 681 people were taken into protective custody, which is when officers bring a person to a doctor or psychologist for an evaluation for possible involuntary psychiatric hospitalization, Mack said.

So far this year through April 5, the department reported 557 emergency detention orders and 713 incidents of protective custody.

Emergence Health Network provides services to about 30,000 people a year through its programs. The agency also provides mental health services to more than 40 percent of the individuals being held at the El Paso County jail.

"That's people that either have a diagnosis or are not diagnosed, but have been through an assessment indicating they are need of mental health services," said Rene Hurtado, chief of development with Emergence.

Hurtado said the police department and health authority are making progress in laying the program's foundation.

“We are excited we have the buy in from the officers and department to undertake this valuable program,” Hurtado said.

Teaching, learning

The curriculum will include teaching officers techniques to deescalate tense situations and how to interact with people who have a mental health illness. Officers will also undergo training to recognize signs and symptoms of suicide, Hurtado said.

The clinical workers will also undergo training on police protocols and how to work with officers in the field.

Hurtado said one of the key procedures being established is identifying the need for the crisis intervention team when the emergency call is initially placed.

"That's part of the program is that it begins at dispatch and follows through to the end of the call," Hurtado said. "The officers will already know that the person may be exhibiting some mental health issues."

The work started last September when city Rep. Alexsandra Annello advocated for the funding.

The City Council approved $315,000 for 14 cadets who will eventually replace the 14 officers who will serve on the specialized team. The total program cost is about $2.5 million.

Maloney said the police department is seeking grant funding for the project.

El Paso is the only large Texas city that does not have a crisis intervention team, officials said.

Annello said she pushed for funding to help people with mental disabilities who are in crisis, and to make sure police officers are properly trained to respond to those emergencies.

“We are one of the largest cities in Texas that does not have that training and it’s just ridiculous,” Annello said. “Also, here in El Paso we have several lawsuits involving police officers and people with mental disabilities — and our officers aren’t trained for that.”

Lawsuits, trials

Police officials have said establishing the team is not in response to the lawsuits, but rather, the need for such a program.

Enrique Moreno, an attorney representing the family of a 22-year-old man who was shot and killed by an El Paso police officer in 2015, said it doesn’t matter if establishing the team was a direct result of the lawsuit.

“They should be motivated by what’s right and what’s safe for our community,” Moreno said. “I think that’s a positive step — and certainly in our community there’s a need for crisis intervention teams. It’s appropriate to ask why El Paso has taken so long to get what other cities have gotten.”

Moreno said a crisis intervention team could have saved the life of Erik Emmanuel Salas Sanchez, who was allegedly shot in the back by Officer Mando Kenneth Gomez.

The lawsuit was filed in a U.S. District Court last year against the city, Gomez and Officers Alberto Rivera and Pamela Smith, who also were at the scene.

Gomez was indicted last year by a grand jury on one count of manslaughter in connection with the death of Salas.

Moreno said the criminal case against Gomez will likely go to trial in May and the civil case is set for trial in early 2019.

The civil rights lawsuit claims Salas' death is part of a troubling pattern by the El Paso Police Department of using excessive force against people who are mentally ill. The lawsuit also mentions several other cases, including a suicidal man who died after being shocked with a Taser in 2015.

Elida S. Perez may be reached at 546-6137; eperez@elpasotimes.com; @ElidaSPerezEPT on Twitter.

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