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On Our Minds is the name of KERA's mental health news initiative. The station began focusing on the issue in 2013, after the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Coverage is funded in part by the Donna Wilhelm Family Fund and Cigna.

As City Budget Decisions Loom, What Role Should Police Play In Response To Mental Health 911 Calls?

Tony Gutierrez
Associated Press
A Dallas police vehicle sits at the entrance of the drive through coronavirus testing location indicating the site is closed for the day in Dallas.

Dallas has proposed a major expansion of its RIGHT Care program, which teams up police, paramedics and social workers to respond to behavioral health calls. But some activists believe cops should not be on the scene during a mental health emergency.

Dallas resident Nora Soto believes if you want to know the priorities of your local government, you should look at how it spends its money.

"The city budget reflects what the city cares about," Soto said. "Therefore, if you actually care about the citizens, it's going to show in your budget, and that clearly is not the case with Dallas."

Soto co-founded Our City, Our Future, a racial justice group that's working to demystify the inner workings of city government and help more people get involved. The group surveyed hundreds of Dallas residents about priorities for the city budget, which theycompiled in a report.

Our City, Our Future is calling on the Dallas City Council to cut $200 millionin funding from the Dallas Police Department, investing it into social services and community infrastructure. Soto said many of the residents surveyed had no idea how much the city currently spends on public safety, which takes up about 60% of the general fund.

"They're rightfully outraged," Soto said. "They've been doing what they can with the least amount of resources, and all the while, the police budget is just bloated, and the spending is out of control, so I'm glad that people are becoming aware and they're starting to advocate for themselves and for their communities and fight for what they need."

Our City, Our Future is also calling for changes to the way Dallas handles mental health emergencies. The group says police should not respond to those calls unless a firearm is involved.

Dallas gets more than 13,000mental health emergency calls each year. Some of those encounters with police have turned fatal.

In 2014, officers shot and killed 38-year-old Jason Harrison after responding to a 911 call. Harrison was mentally ill and holding a screwdriver. In 2016, officers killed 32-year-old Tony Timpaafter pinning him to the ground during an arrest. Timpa had called 911 for help, telling a dispatcher he suffered from schizophrenia.

In 2018, the Dallas Police Department piloted a new approach to mental health emergency response. The RIGHT Care Programis a team of police officers, paramedics and social workers from Parkland Hospital based at the South Central Dallas Police Station.

When the team is dispatched, officers are first on the scene. Then, a paramedic with Dallas Fire-Rescue does a medical assessment, and a Parkland social worker does a behavioral health evaluation.

Kurtis Young, Social Work Director in Parkland’s Behavioral Health Department, said the RIGHT Care program has diverted people from emergency rooms and the Dallas County Jail, which is the county's largest provider of mental health services. He said Parkland supports a proposal to add four more RIGHT Care teams.

"RIGHT Care was a great way to serve the needs of the community before people ever even got to the E.R.," Young said. "You could kind of prevent as many as 20 to 30% of those encounters from ever hitting an E.R. or being taken to jail. Sometimes it is taking them to a hospital or an E.R. because they're not doing so well, but sometimes we can resolve that crisis in the community."

Dallas Police Sergeant Jennifer Wells said D.P.D. wants to gain the community's trust, and RIGHT Care is helping.

"If you're having a mental health crisis or if you have a family member that's in a mental health crisis, you won't be nervous or fear calling the police out because you've seen now that they don't go to jail every time," Wells said.

Lieutenant Isaac Gooch with Dallas Fire-Rescue said the team's presence has shown people what positive interactions with police can look like.

"I've seen people ask for RIGHT Care by name when I'm actually in the vehicle," Gooch said. "I think it's a bridge that helps rebuild trust and rebuild relationships that may have been broken or may have suffered in the last few months."

Nora Soto with Our City, Our Future also supports expanding RIGHT Care. It's in line with the sort of alternatives to police response her group has called for. Still, in most instances, Soto doesn't think officers should be present when someone is in a mental health crisis.

"There's not a crime being committed most of the time," Soto said. "Most of the time, they're unarmed. They don't need to go to jail. They need de-escalation. They need transportation to a mental health facility. They need basic services, food, housing. That's what they need. They don't need a cop to show up."

Syeda Hasan is the Elections Editor and Reporter at KERA. Before moving into that role, she covered mental health at the station. A Houston native, her journalism career has taken her to public radio newsrooms around Texas.