HCSO to give deputies special training

August 23, 2011 4:14:49 PM PDT
Harris County Sheriff's Office deputies will get some special training on how to handle suspects with mental health issues, and some advocates believe it's a partnership that could save lives.

Saving lives and money -- that's the premise this innovative program that hopefully, law enforcement officials say, will cut down on the estimated thousands of mental health patients that actually work their way through the county jail. They say this program will get the help they need while leaving them away from the jail system.

Dr. Edward Hayes still can't believe his younger brother Steven is gone.

"My brother suffered from paranoid schizophrenia," he said.

It was on June 26 that Steven became unruly at the Hilton on NASA Road 1. He was shot with a stun gun three times by Nassau Bay police, suffered a heart attack and later died. On Tuesday, his older brother spoke at Commissioners Court, urging Harris County to join an innovative program designed to keep mental health patients out of county jails and instead get the help they need.

"I urge you to seriously consider the proposal that is before you, because I'm almost certain had our law enforcement in Nassau Bay had such a team with them, my brother would be alive today," Dr. Hayes said.

Called the Crisis Intervention Response Team, or CIRT, the program pairs law enforcement with mental health clinicians to respond to mental health crisis calls. Houston police already have 10 such officers. Harris County is about to add three.

"We're going to not have people in the county jail that can be better served in other places," Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia said.

Sheriff Garcia says up to 600 mental health patients could be diverted annually from the county jail under the program, saving county resources and money. Local mental health professionals are fully supportive.

"We would want to support this initiative with the sheriff and if the data warrants, expands that in the future as well," said Steve Schnee with the Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority of Harris County.

Despite the widespread support, county commissioners initially delayed the program but finally approved it on Tuesday. Dr. Hayes just hopes it will help another family.

"Just maybe it will prevent such occurrences in the future," he said.

For Sheriff Garcia, this was a rare victory. County commissioners have often delayed or denied his requests for a variety of services. When we asked him about Tuesday's developments, he said it was a rare victory for the residents of Harris County.

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