Editor’s note: This story contains references to mental illness and mental health emergencies.
UT Police Department emergency detentions due to mental health distress calls have increased from 2017 to 2019 in general, UTPD Chief David Carter said.
Emergency detentions occur when a police officer takes custody of someone who they believe poses a risk to themself or others due to mental health issues. UTPD conducted 306 emergency detentions in 2017, 469 in 2018 and 441 in 2019. Carter said it is unclear if this year will show an increase in mental health distress calls because the pandemic shifted many students away from campus.
“If you’re in crisis, there may be any number of manifestations there,” Carter said. “You may be withdrawn, depressed or a person may be angry or manic. We try to reassure the person that we hear what you are saying and to try and understand the circumstances a person is in.”
Carter said isolation and quarantine are stressors for people, and UTPD encourages the UT community to engage with on-campus mental health resources, such as the Counseling and Mental Health Center.
UTPD officers must undergo 40 hours of mental health training, which is the number of hours required to become a certified mental health officer, Carter said.
“We make sure to be slow and not reactive,” Carter said. “You don’t ever address anger with more anger. That does not solve the problem. … People are emotional beings, and part of the job of the police is to recognize that fact.”
After officers assess the situation, distress calls are usually directed to a health care provider. Once at the hospital, detainment cannot last more than 48 hours unless a physician deems admission necessary.
Adaylin Alvarez, a general chemistry course assistant, said that because of her job, she is obligated under Title IX to report anyone who confides in her and must contact the police if someone may pose an immediate danger to themselves or others.
“I hate that I have to do it, but I’m obligated by contract,” English and biology senior Alvarez said. “It’s difficult to open up to someone only for them to call the police, especially if you’re a person of color or more, especially if you are Black. It’s ugly, and I wish it didn’t have to happen.”
Alvarez said she would rather have someone with mental health expertise handle these distress calls.
Social work professor Michael Lauderdale said police across the country are not prepared to deal with mental health de-escalation situations but said UTPD’s model of community policing makes them better equipped for these situations.
“There have been very regrettable riots and violence associated with dealing with this, including in Austin,” Lauderdale said. “I haven't seen that on campus, but that may partially speak to how well the (UTPD) police are trained.”
Carter said he believes well-trained officers who focus on empathy and understanding will help reestablish trust.
“There are some people that believe the police should not respond to cases of mental crisis or a person suffering from crisis,” Carter said. “I don’t agree because … the police have to be there to basically ensure other people don’t get (hurt) in that situation.”