November 13, 2014
Here’s an amazing article from NPR.org that highlights the efforts made by the police of San Antonio, Texas. Police officers known as mental health cops have been part of an overall effort by San Antonio to reform their mental health and prison systems in the city, with great success. We need this kind of reform throughout the whole country.
It’s almost 4 p.m., and police officers Ernest Stevens and Ned Bandoske have been driving around town in their unmarked black SUV since early this morning. The officers are part of San Antonio’s mental health squad — a six-person unit that answers the frequent emergency calls where mental illness may be an issue.
The officers spot a call for help on their laptop from a group home across town.
“A male individual put a blanket on fire this morning,” Stevens reads from the blotter. “He’s arguing … and is a danger to himself and others. He’s off his medications.”
A few minutes later, the SUV pulls up in front of the group home. A thin 24-year-old sits on a wooden bench out back, wearing a black hoodie.
“You’re Mason?” asks Bandoske. “What happened to your blanket?” Eight years ago, the next stop for someone like Mason would have been a hospital emergency room or jail. (Because of his condition, NPR is not using Mason’s last name.) But the Bexar County jail, in San Antonio, was so overcrowded — largely with people with serious mental illnesses — that the state was getting ready to levy fines.
This sort of situation is not unusual: Across the country, jails hold 10 times as many people with serious mental illness as state hospitals do, according to a recent report from the Treatment Advocacy Center, a national nonprofit that lobbies for better treatment options for people with mental illness.
To deal with the problem, San Antonio and Bexar County have transformed their mental health system into a program considered a model for the rest of the nation. Today, the jails aren’t full, and the city and county have saved $50 million over the past five years.
The effort has focused on an idea called “smart justice” — basically, diverting people with serious mental illness out of jail and into treatment instead.
San Antonio’s new approach starts with the kind of interaction Bandoske and Stevens are having with Mason. The troubled young man is hunched over, and his eyes dart back and forth between the two officers. He mumbles answers to the officers’ questions, sometimes stopping to stare at a spot in the distance. For outsiders, it’s hard to know what’s going on, but the officers say they can tell Mason is hallucinating. Bandoske kneels in front of him, trying to maintain eye contact and get Mason’s attention.