HPD Chief Charles McClelland: Cops often can't keep guns from mentally ill; new bill in works to change law

March 3, 2013 1:10:38 PM PST
Texas police often can't keep guns from the mentally ill because they don't have the authority under state law to seize a weapon from someone they are transporting for evaluation at a psychiatric treatment center.

Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland wants the Legislature to require a judge to decide if those who have been referred for mental health treatment are qualified to possess a gun. He's enlisted state Rep. Allen Fletcher, a Republican from Tomball who is drafting a bill to keep those firearms in a police property room until a judge decides it should be returned.

Right now, state law only allows police to keep weapons used in the commission of a crime.

"I'm not trying to take guns from citizens in this country, but there should be an additional judicial review," McClelland said. "Someone, other than the police, should have to review that case or that incident requiring that mental evaluation, to tell me if this person is still qualified to own or carry a firearm" and get it back.

When Houston police officers respond to a call involving a mentally disturbed person, they sometimes find the suspect armed with the same gun they seized in an earlier incident.

Last year, Houston police had 27,000 calls involving residents with mental health problems and seized 47 firearms from January to July from persons taken for mental examination. In 2011, the 25,000 mental health calls handled by Houston police included 90 people whose firearms were held while they were given an emergency psychiatric exam.

McClelland said that because of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, police don't know if the person was committed for psychiatric treatment.

"Whenever that person's (mental) evaluation is completed, because of HIPAA laws and medical privacy issues, I have no way of knowing if this person still qualifies to carry or have a firearm," McClelland said. "But when they show up at the property room, I have no choice but to give it back. And I want to give it back if they still qualify."

The proposed legislation would amend the state's mental health code, allowing police to hold a weapon taken from a person who is experiencing a mental health crisis and has been found to be a danger to himself or others and is being transported by police for an emergency mental health evaluation.

The bill sets deadlines for returning the firearm. If the individuals are no longer legally allowed to own a weapon they can transfer it to a designee. Police are not allowed to keep or destroy weapons not claimed, but instead must sell them and give the proceeds to the owner.

San Antonio Police Chief Bill McManus offered support for the change in law.

"My stance on gun laws is not a political one," McManus said in a statement. "I am a proponent of any law that keeps guns out of the hands of people who shouldn't have them and any law which enhances public safety and officer safety."

Fletcher, a retired Houston police officer and hostage negotiator who is vice chairman of the House Public Safety Committee, recalled taking a weapon from a suspect, only to return to the same address and face the same disturbed person who retrieved the firearm from the property room.

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