City audit reveals issues with Austin police’s responses to mental illness

Christine Sanchez, Staff Writer

A recent city audit reveals that the City of Austin has the highest rates of shootings targeted at people with mental health issues, according to a report from the Austin-American Statesman. The report shows that people with mental health issues are at a high risk of experiencing violence from police officers as a result of their illness.

The audit found that, among 15 of the nation’s most populous cities, including Seattle, San Antonio and Houston, among others, Austin was ranked as having one of the lowest number of responses from Crisis Intervention Teams, or CITs. CITs are responsible for responding to situations in which people with mental health issues are involved with law enforcement. With a population of approximately 950,000, Austin had responded to 12,000 calls. Houston, with a population of two million, responded to 37,000.

Additionally, the American-Statesman reports that Austin police dispatchers did not refer individuals to a mental health officer or take the precautionary steps to ensure that individuals would receive professional help following altercations with police. Instead, those with mental health issues were left without receiving treatment or counseling.

As reported in the city audit, the Austin Police Department is planning to include more training requirements for their police force come late 2018. Austin Police Chief Brian Manley told the American-Statesman that APD will start to work on dispatching mental health officers when needed in order to ensure the safety of mentally ill people encountered by APD.

Senior criminal justice major Greta Kairyte says that she doesn’t think that police officers shoot mentally ill people because “they want to.” She suggests that the statistic may be a result of mentally ill people possibly being “the ones [committing] the most crimes in Austin.” She thinks that officers should be required to receive “more training” when it comes to interacting with mentally ill people, as well as refraining from shooting unless it is a last resort, or shooting to wound, not to kill. Otherwise, she says that officers should use tasers instead of guns.

Tasers aren’t always the ideal choice for officers in high-risk situations, according to an article by NBC News. The site reports that officers aren’t meant to reach for their taser in these situations because responding with “less force” could potentially put them and others in more danger.

The St. Edward’s University police force is required to be trained in facilitating interactions with mentally ill people, as well as racial profiling and cultural diversity. Officers can also receive more training than is required, and many UPD officers here on campus do. Officers also assist students in receiving treatment from the Health and Counseling Center. Additionally, all SEU employees are required to take an annual training to prevent discrimination and harassment.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five adults experience mental health problems in a year. Twenty percent of people who are incarcerated have been affected by mental illness. The Treatment Advocacy Center reports that more mentally ill people are incarcerated than are in mental health institutions, where they are able to receive assistance and support.