It’s been a really tough few weeks. From Orlando to Dallas to Baton Rouge, our nation has seen more tragedy in rapid succession than in any time I can recall. For those of us in North Texas, the loss is especially profound – not since 9/11 have so many American police officers been killed in the line of duty.
As a community, we will continue to grieve for our collective loss. For the families who have lost a husband, son, brother or father, their pain is incomprehensible. For the police officers who lost partners and friends, I have to imagine the pain they feel is only magnified by the continued daily pressures and dangers of the job.
So for the rest of us, after the memorials and vigils have passed, as social media and the 24/7 news cycle inevitably directs our attention elsewhere, how do we hold on to the grief and horror we’ve shared lately and translate it into something tangible that maybe helps avert future tragedies?
In the aftermath of the Dallas attack, Dallas Police Chief David Brown rightfully underscored the mounting responsibilities our country places on police officers each and every day.
He said, “We’re asking cops to do too much in this country. Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding — let the cop handle it. Not enough drug addiction funding — let’s give it to the cop…”
Although there is still much to be learned about the Dallas and Baton Rouge killers, it seems clear both were troubled men who decided they wanted to die while killing police officers. The sad and frightening reality is that in any urban police department, cops are coming into contact with people who have mental health issues every single day. Obviously and thankfully, most of those interactions don’t end in tragedy. But it underscores how police never know what to expect in any given encounter – but when they get there, we expect them to deal with it, no matter what it is.
Soon after being named to the House Select Committee on Mental Health, I sat down with Arlington first responders to learn how mental health issues impact public safety. It was an eye-opening discussion and it was immediately apparent that police have become de facto mental health caseworkers.
Responding to repeated calls from the same person who suffers from paranoia. Checking in on people they’ve interacted with in the past to make sure they’re taking their medicine. Driving someone to JPS in Fort Worth – and often staying with them all day – so they can be checked into the psychiatric facility, instead of taking them to jail.
Arlington PD is doing some great things. Working with the local mental health authority, MHMR of Tarrant County, the APD has 24/7 access to mental health care resources, including four counselors on staff.
Arlington is not alone. Police departments across our state are finding innovative ways to help those with severe mental health needs. They have come up with effective local programs, which is good.
The reality is that Arlington and other departments are doing this out of necessity. That doesn’t mean we should accept it as their responsibility alone.
The state of Texas needs to step up in a big way on mental health care and take some of the pressure off of our first responders. In the next few months, our committee will make recommendations to the full Legislature on what we need to do to improve access to mental health care. Chief Brown’s words should serve as a wake-up call to all of us in the Legislature, because we can’t continue to push problems down to local communities. As Brown noted, “policing was never meant to solve all those problems.”
He’s right. It’s time for the Legislature to act to help ensure that first responders aren’t expected to solve every acute problem on their own.
A concerted, meaningful focus on mental health care is good place to start.