Harris County initiates plan to keep nonviolent 911 response program

ByMelissa Enaje Community Impact Newspaper logo
Friday, June 7, 2024
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HARRIS COUNTY, Texas -- Steven Wu recalled a personal experience back in April when one of his immediate family members, who lives four or five hours away, suffered from what he described as an acute mental health crisis. Wu said his sibling was a potential danger to himself but urged his family to not call 911.

"My family doesn't live in Texas; they live in Louisiana. There is no such thing as an Holistic Assistance Response Team in Louisiana," Wu said at the June 4 meeting of Harris County Commissioners Court. "I was screaming to my parents to not do this and then once law enforcement and ambulances arrived, family members stood between my sibling and the officers imploring that he is not dangerous."

Wu said he was fortunate police officers didn't do anything to his family, but he also described how finding adequate help outside of law enforcement was a challenge. Wu works as the organizer and policy director for Houston nonprofit Woori Juntos, an organization that works alongside Asian and immigrant communities across Texas and provides what is described on the group's website as culturally competent education and advocacy services.

Wu said he reached out to friends and colleagues in the state and was told that outside of law enforcement, the only sort of help for mental health patients would come from funeral service businesses.

"I just think about what could happen, what people could miss out on in terms of the help that they need," Wu said.

What happened

Wu's plea to Harris County commissioners was for the county to maintain its Holistic Assistance Response Team program that was launched in 2022.

The program reached a pause in May after commissioners failed to reach an agreement on whether to pay the vendor overseeing the program.

Harris County auditors were investigating an outstanding invoice for at least $272,900 in completed work for the program after finding discrepancies in the vendor's invoices, according to county officials.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said in a statement the May decision meant cutting funding from one of the most substantial criminal justice reform programs.

"As our community grapples with overcrowding in our jails and as residents' mental and physical health suffers in the face of disasters, we need HART more than ever. I'm troubled that Commissioners Court has halted this successful program that saves and improves lives. I'm committed to working with my colleagues to find a solution that gets HART back on our streets to make our community safer," Ellis said.

The impact

HART dispatches 911 calls and other calls to interdisciplinary, unarmed first responder teams trained in behavioral health and on-scene medical assistance.

The HART program was created to improve community health and safety by quickly providing the appropriate response to residents experiencing homelessness, behavioral health issues, or nonemergency health or social welfare concerns. HART also aims to reduce what officials call unnecessary law enforcement or hospital-based interventions for nonemergency 911 calls.

By the numbers

HART officials have responded to at least 11,500 calls since the program's initial launch two years ago. According to the program's dashboard, the number of calls are broken down into years:

  • 2022: 1,603

  • 2023: 5,863

  • 2024: 4,074

The big picture

At the June 4 meeting, county commissioners spent time questioning the county auditor's office on what transpired between invoices and discussed the roles of the county attorney's office and the county public health department overseeing the program as well as outside investigations into the external vendor.

Harris County commissioners voted 4-1 to approve audited claims and pay the vendor's $200,000 invoice and improve the language within the contract to avoid further discrepancies. They also voted 4-1 on a seven-part timeline that would create an internal county system that oversees the HART program instead of contracting an outside vendor.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia, a former Harris County sheriff, agreed with Ellis and Precinct 4 Commissioner Lesley Briones that HART could be a joint program overseen by various county departments. Garcia said HART is a program he could have utilized during his tenure as a county sheriff.

The overview

Commissioners Court passed motions June 4 presented by Briones and Ellis to address allegations of mismanagement by HART's current program vendor, DEMA Consulting and Management. The approved seven-part plan includes the following action items, according to a news release:

  • Request for contract amendment presented at the June 25 commissioners court

  • Harris County Public Health must issue request for proposal for service provider for HART by July 15.

  • The Office of County Administration and HCPH must create a plan to bring HART in-house and bring proposal to commissioners court on July 15.

  • Request enhanced reporting on HART, including plan and timeline for expansion to three districts and going to 24/7 service

  • The OCA's Research and Analysis Division must produce report analyzing 911 calls for service for Harris County Sheriff's Office districts.

  • Request OCA and HCPH to apply for a technical assistance grant

  • Request OCA to manage the project and help coordinate delivery and implementation of the motions

Briones said in a news release that HART allows law enforcement to focus on their most important work of tackling violent crime.

"Police play a critical role in public safety but they can't do it alone. That's why I was committed to fully funding public safety when I took office, including expanding the HART program ... which includes much of Precinct 4. I remain committed to HART, and I am energized by the opportunity to enact changes that will ensure the program meets its full potential," Briones said.

This article comes from our ABC13 partners at Community Impact Newspapers.