Solutions sought for skyrocketing number of mental health calls

Austin Police responding to a call (KXAN Photo)
Austin Police responding to a call (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A major issue discussed at Monday’s public safety commission meeting, was the increasing number of calls officers have to spend helping those who are dealing with a mental health crisis. KXAN has learned the number isn’t just going up, it’s skyrocketing.

It was a conversation that lasted nearly an hour. Committee members wanting to know if there are enough resources to lower the number of times Austin Police officers are having to respond to these types of calls.

“Last year I mentioned in the meeting I went on a ride along and spent three hours on a single case that was a mental health case,” said Committee member Bill Wosham.

Worsham was shocked when he saw the increase in the number of calls. To put it in perspective, in 2007 dispatch received nearly 6,400 calls related to mental health. Compare that to 2014’s number which jumped to almost 11,000.

“When we’re dealing with individuals that are in a state of mental crisis the ability to communicate with them and deescalate is of the greatest importance so things don’t go in a bad direction,” said Austin Police Assistant Chief Brian Manley.

Right now the Austin Police Department has 162 patrol officers who are trained to respond to these kinds of cases; many of them involving SWAT teams. The department also has a crisis intervention team that trains officers to identify people with mental health needs.

“The goal here is to divert those who are in a mental health crisis from being placed in either hospitals or jails because they’re not getting the help they need,” said Assistant Chief Manley.

He also says many patients are spending up to 17 hours in a hospital room and not getting the help they truly need. The Public Safety Commission says they want to take their concerns to city council and investigate whether more money can be found in the budget specifically for mental health resources. That could be done during next year’s budget cycle.

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