Facing mental health crisis should lead to psychiatric help, not UTPD arrest

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Photo Credit: Alexandra Vanderhider | Daily Texan Staff

On Thursday, Nov. 7, the UT Police Department reported the arrest of Matthew Dominguez on charges of making terroristic threats to “go on a shooting spree at the UT School of Social Work.” Given recent school shootings nationwide, UTPD was “grateful to have had the opportunity to intervene and prevent potential harm to our community.” 

However, this arrest was a mistake. Instead of a felony charge and a $100,000 bond, Dominguez should have received psychiatric treatment — the very help he had voluntarily sought. 

According to UTPD’s incident notification, “Dominguez drove to a psychiatric treatment center requesting help” regarding his violent thoughts. After meeting with Dominguez at the treatment center, the Austin Police Department placed him on emergency psychiatric hold and transferred him to Dell Seton Medical Center. There, he expressed threats to harm himself and the UT School of Social Work, as well as his anger regarding the difficulty to get psychiatric treatment. Overnight, “the doctor at Dell Seton Medical Center determined Dominguez did not meet the requirement for a psychiatric commitment and was released,” according to UTPD’s Affidavit for Warrant of Arrest and Detention. 

Yet, police arrested Dominguez at his home at 7:38 a.m. the next morning. Dominguez’s affidavit indicates UTPD sought arrest for threats made at mental help facilities and does not reference other offensible actions. 

There is a strange disconnect between Dell Seton’s decisions and UTPD’s actions. It is unclear how Dominguez’s thoughts could be viewed both as insufficient for psychiatric commitment, but dangerous enough to warrant arrest. 

For psychiatric commitment, a doctor would have to deem Dominguez mentally ill with imminent threats to harm himself or others and that emergency detention is the least restrictive way to restrain, according to the Texas Mental Health Code. We can only speculate why Dominguez failed to meet psychiatric commitment; UTPD’s public police report fails to give any insight on Dell Seton’s decision to release Dominguez, and we were unable to obtain details regarding Dominguez’s psychiatric evaluation despite speaking with Dell Seton. Maybe Dell Seton believed Dominguez was not mentally ill or that emergency detention was not the least restrictive way to restrain him. 

After Dell Seton’s release of Dominguez, UTPD was in a precarious situation. UTPD could no longer detain Dominguez via emergency psychiatric hold, and Dominguez might still have reason to act on his thoughts, especially after being denied medical care. UTPD decided to pursue arrest to protect the community.

Even so, arrest was not the answer. Those facing mental health crises should not fear jail while seeking help.

The police need to have intermediate options before turning to arrest. UTPD should have the ability to deploy surveillance units around Dominguez’s home or to check if he possessed a gun. UTPD could have also conducted welfare checks to assess Dominguez’s mental state and intent. These actions combined with UTPD’s patrols and searches would have secured UT’s campus without turning to arrest. 

In addition, mental health facilities and local police actions should align to ensure a coordinated response — one that does not jail people for seeking help. Sadly, this collaboration does not seem to be present in this case. 

Although he was recently released, Dominguez sat in county jail without family support or proper medical care. He faced a considerable felony charge, an unreasonable bond — especially since Dominguez was found without a gun — and possible penalties for violating his probation. In addition, his full name, age, hometown and even where he sought help were mass-distributed to the public. The combination makes for a stressful situation that is certainly not helping his suicidal state. 

Dominguez’s case may have a chilling effect on people’s willingness to seek help when dealing with violent thoughts. Austin police already have a poor track record with the mentally ill. A 2018 city auditor report found that “people experiencing a mental health crisis in Austin may be at higher risk of having a negative police interaction” than those in peer cities, such as Dallas, Houston or Phoenix.  

Dominguez’s arrest may have now escaped the media’s center attention, but his case is still important for the wider Austin community to understand. Dominguez’s case highlights a rooted problem in our local criminal justice system. We must increase the options Austin-based police have when interacting with the mentally ill, thereby encouraging those who are struggling to seek help. That is how we will achieve a safer community not by arresting the vulnerable.

Jain is an aerospace engineering junior. Gupta is a computational engineering and Plan II Honors senior. Xiong is a computer science junior.