Police Reform - Mental Health

Following the police killing of George Floyd on May 25, many Americans began demanding police reform. In the upcoming 2020 election it is an issue receiving attention, especially reform for mental health response.

Capt. Jeremy Polk of the University of North Texas Police Department says there are plenty of departments that need reform and that his department is always looking to improve. He said UNT has trained its officers to handle mental health situations.

"In fact, our policy even says it best and that is if you're faced with a choice of mental health care and an arrest, we are to try to do the mental health piece first, when and if you can," Polk said. "Before you'd make an arrest before we take a problem to a jail."

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, in America, 2 million people with mental illness are booked into jails every year.

It's essential that police departments across the country have significant training in mental health concerns, said Dr.Tamara Knapp-Grosz, UNT's senior director of counseling and testing services.

"The most horrible thing that could happen is that somebody is suffering from a mental health disorder and that's misinterpreted in some way and some kind of tragedy occurs," said Knapp-Grosz.

One in four fatal law enforcement encounters involves a person with serious mental illness.

J.D. Francis is a University of North Texas criminal justice master's student and historian of Alpha Phi Sigma,a national criminal justice honor society. In this program, she gears a lot of her research toward the increase of mental health prevalence. Part of that research has been about the implementation of the crisis intervention team in police departments.

Crisis intervention teams often consist of only police officers, Francis said.

"One thing that I personally think should change on that avenue is that it should be a co-op between mental health professionals and police officers," Francis said.

Francis was specifically mentioning the arrangement the Dallas Police Department currently has. She feels that crisis intervention teams should be in all cities and larger departments should have multiple teams.

Some police departments throughout the country are starting models that include police and mental health professionals. Irving Police have a multidisciplinary mental health response team that includes one sergeant, three police officers who are certified mental health peace officers, and one civilian mental health clinician.

Currently the UNT Police Department doesn't have plans to implement a mental health response team because they don't have a large staff or area to police, and because the university has resources available to them that other departments may not.

According to a mental health calls master list from July 17, 2018, to July 17, 2020, the UNT Police Department received a total of 182 mental health incident calls.

The UNT Police Department is working to get all of their officers to be certified mental health peace officers, which involves a 40-hour training that informs officers of what an anxiety disorder may look like to psychosis. Polk said it gives you the ability to recognize certain mental health issues.

"That's going to be a huge bragging point for us, is to be able to say everyone is a MHPO because I don't know of anyone else that's doing that," Polk said.

There is also a push for redirection of funding from police departments to social programs that can better respond to non-criminal calls, like for someone experiencing a mental health crisis.

"I think there's just this strong want for one better training when it comes to things such as use of force and de-escalation of situations," said Francis ." And I definitely think there's a want for moving funds from the police departments to mental health avenues to help people that are suffering from mental health."

Polk doesn't know if taking money away from the police is the answer and what effects that may have on the community. If money was to be taken away from their budget, which he said is minuscule, it would cause them to have to fire officers. He explains how he would hate to do anything to make their department less effective.

"It's not defunding the police to me," he said. " For me it's more like refunding things we've taken away over the years. If we want to fund mental health to me that's what should be on the poster board."