BCSO unit interested in getting mentally ill people treatment, not jail time

Mental Health Unit dedicated to handling calls involving mentally ill

By Tim Gerber - Reporter/Anchor

SAN ANTONIO - On Sept. 30, 2015, deputies assigned to the Bexar County Sheriff's Office Mental Health Unit went to a home on Sage Hill Drive to talk to a suicidal man.

The man became uncooperative and barricaded himself in a room. He was armed with a gun and fired several shots at the deputies, narrowly missing them.

The deputies escaped the home safely and a lengthy standoff was underway.

When it was all over, the man was found dead of a self-inflicted gun shot.

"It got very ugly, very quick," said Sgt. Raul Garza, the supervisor of the Mental Health Unit. "Some rounds were fired at us while we were still in the house."

The deadly encounter highlights the many dangers all deputies face when dealing with the mentally ill or someone in the middle of a crisis. Garza and his team don't often make headlines, instead they quietly work behind the scenes every day, convincing people to get the help they need and taking them to hospitals instead of jail.

"A good outcome is (when) everyone goes home safe," Garza said. "The person comes out and the person gets taken to a treatment facility."

READ: Info on mental illness from National Alliance on Mental Illness

Deputies in the Mental Health Unit typically encounter the mentally ill in one of three ways. The first is by responding to calls that come into a crisis hotline manned by the Center for Health Care Services and usually involve a person contemplating suicide.

Deputies can also respond to calls that come into dispatchers or a request for help from another deputy who needs their expertise on a call.

"We can respond out with you and we can take over the call for you, it just depends on what's going on and where you're at," Garza said.

The third way deputies come into contact with the mentally ill is by serving mental health warrants. Typically requested by a family member and signed off on by a judge, the warrant gives deputies the authority to take a person to a hospital or treatment facility where they can be held while a doctor evaluates them.

"If the threat is imminent, then we're going to respond right now. However, if the threat is not imminent, if its something that's been on going for the past 10 days, then a warrant will come in play at that time," Garza said.

Because the warrants they serve are civil instead of criminal, deputies rarely use force when attempting to execute a warrant. Instead they try to talk their way in.

Watch Tim Gerber's reports that aired on the Nightbeat.

Everything from their unmarked units to the street clothes they wear is designed to help de-escalate often volatile situations.

READ: Local mental health resources

"It helps keep the person calm. Oftentimes when a person is suffering from a mental illness, it helps if someone shows up not in uniform," Garza said. "Our primary focus is to get the person help, not to scare them into thinking they're going to jail."

While most encounters end peacefully, it's not uncommon for some to be violent like the call on Sage Hill Drive.

"We executed about 400 warrants last year, and we had about 180 instances where there was some sort of violence involved, whether the person was armed with some sort of a weapon or was aggressive towards deputies," Garza said.

Because of the crisis intervention training the deputies are required to complete, none of those cases where violence was involved ended with a deputy using deadly force.

In an attempt to further reduce deadly encounters with the mentally ill, the unit is now considering adding less lethal options.

Right now, deputies assigned to the unit are equipped with a riot shield, a baton, Taser and their service weapon. When the baton and Taser fail to stop a person, deputies have no choice but to reach for their guns.

RELATED: SAPD offers mental health training to outside agencies

Garza hopes adding sponge-tipped, direct-impact rounds and launchers will give deputies another tool if they need it to subdue an out-of-control suspect.

"There are certain times where we are going to respond to situations where a person is armed with some sort of object, be it a knife or a gun or sharp object, and they're not complying," Garza said. "The Taser only reaches so far. We don't want to go hands-on, so by expanding our less lethal options, we have sort of a longer reach where we can take that person into custody and get them the help they need."

Less lethal weapons aside, Garza said the best tool these deputies have is their training and compassion.

"We show up and they're very angry, they're confused, they're aggressive and by us talking to them de-escalates them to the point where they walk out and get in our car," Garza said. "We can spend hours out there and we can talk to the person and de-escalate them and get them to walk out with us. Oftentimes that is the case that happens."

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