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The Source: Changing Dynamics Between Police And Mentally Ill

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Ryan Loyd
TPR News

Earlier this week, the American Civil Liberties Union released dash-cam footage of six Michigan policemen killing a mentally ill homeless man brandishing a pen knife who  appeared to be of little threat. The 2012 video and its recorded 46 gun shots showed Milton Hall die, and punctuated the many instances of the volatile mix that is police and the mentally ill.

A 2013 report from the Treatment Advocacy Center and the National Sheriff's Association  showed that at least half of all people shot can killed by police in the United States were mentally ill. Additionally, police are more likely to be killed by an assailant that is mentally ill than one with prior arrests for assaulting police.

Spending on mental health treatment fell of the cliff during the recession. Fewer treatment options for the nation's 3.8 million severely mentally ill citizens means more reliance on law enforcement and the justice system as the provider of last resort. 

Texas ranks 50th in per capita spending for mental health. At $38.99 per it is just over one third of the national average. For these reasons the largest mental health hospital in Texas is the Harris County Jail.

But there may be signs of hope in the public safety arena. More and more police departments and sheriff's offices are trying to change the way police and the mentally ill interact by increasing training, mental health first aid courses  and creating specific units to address the need. Indeed some have advocated to have mental health professionals on the front line.  

Harris county Sheriff's department created a unit 3 years ago that they credit with ensuring more than 700 individuals made it into treatment rather than jail. The San Antonio Police Department with Bexar County have also created a specific unit. In both cases the cost saving of treatment over jail has been in the tens of millions of dollars. 


  • Adrian Garcia, Sheriff of Harris County
  • Earnest Stevens, Mental Health Unit Officer for San Antonio Police Department
  • Joseph Smarro, Mental Health Unit Officer for San Antonio Police Department
Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org and on Twitter at @paulflahive