Editor's Note: This story first appeared in The Daily Texan's February 9 print edition.
The UT Police Department launched the University Critical Incident Response Team on Jan. 11 with the hope of using alternate methods to de-escalate mental health crises.
The response team is composed of four officers and one sergeant who have worked for UTPD for more than two years and are certified mental health officers, which means they have received 40 hours of mental health training. Members of the team will wear a button-down shirt with a name tag, conceal their weapons and use unmarked cars when responding to calls.
According to a 2014 study by the American Psychiatric Association, crisis intervention training in multiple departments demonstrated increased verbal negotiation as the highest level of force used, with referral to mental health units more likely and arrests less likely. The study found there was no measurable difference in the use of force between officers with crisis intervention training and those without it.
Lt. Samantha Stanford said UTPD hopes that using a more subdued response will make mental health crisis situations less stressful.
“(The officers are) just going to be talking with them, doing an evaluation to see if they need to be taken to a hospital to talk to a professional or see if there are other resources in the community that they can connect them (with) to help them move forward,” Stanford said.
Chris Harris, director of the Criminal Justice Project for Texas Appleseed, said that there isn’t much evidence to indicate that additional training and mental health intervention helps alleviate police brutality.
“This (initiative) is better than nothing almost surely, but I think that ultimately what defines police is their ability to use violence, surveillance and coercion in exercising their duties,” Harris said. “Police will resort to use of those tools at some point.”
UTPD Police Chief David Carter said one of the focuses of the response team is to increase trust among those who do not have confidence in the police, including communities of color.
Carter said he established a crisis negotiation team in 2013 that looked at issues occurring around the country among various police departments and supported the development of the response team to improve UTPD crisis response.
“The past year or so has certainly been challenging in the world of policing, and the way that I look at it, in a lot of instances where police departments were … responding to calls involving people in crisis, they did not end well,” Carter said. “We’ve not had an instance like that at UT or with UTPD.”
According to a study released by the UT School of Law Human Rights Clinic and the Austin Community Law Center, the Austin Police Department was responsible for the death of eight people experiencing a mental health-related crisis from 2010 to 2016. There were 20 other shootings in which the victim survived, according to the study. These incidents contributed to the budget reallocation that was approved by City Council in August 2020 following Black Lives Matter protests in the summer.
Harris said involving individuals who don’t have the authority to use violence is the best approach to preventing conflict in mental health encounters.
“A more appropriate response is someone who has got clinical expertise and specialty in dealing with mental health issues,” Harris said. “These are positive steps but clearly don’t go as far as many communities are starting to recognize is necessary in order to truly ensure the safety of people in mental health crisis.”