Saturday, October 03, 2020

Houston Mayor's Policing Task Force Recap, Part 3: Mental-health first response, What counts as diversion?, the 'all-purpose panacea promoted by people who oppose policy change,' and other stories

Here's Part 3 of Grits' tripartite, annotated analysis of the new report from the Houston Mayor's Task Force on Policing Reform. See Part 1 and Part 2.

Mental-Health First Response
In Austin, Dallas, and elsewhere across the country, one of the approaches to displacing police from non-law-enforcement tasks has been mental-health first response, where many clients do not ask for a law-enforcement presence and end up in involuntary detention, more often than not, because police don't know what else to do with them. Adding insult to injury, when cops drop them off at the emergency room, they get credit for a "jail diversion"!

The Task Force found that "Diversion of mental-health-related 911 calls at the call center level is the earliest point of diversion before any law enforcement involvement. Since the beginning of the [counseling] program, CCD [Crisis Call Diversion] diverted more than 4,902 calls from law enforcement response and saved the equivalent of 7,353 hours of police time (March 2016 to May 2019)." The Task Force recommended funding 24/7 counselors to boost the diversion rate, as well as boosting the number of Mobile Crisis Outreach teams (civilian medical folks who respond to MH crises in the field), and tripling the number of HPD's CIRT teams, which are police officers teamed with mental-health practitioners.

The Task Force endorsed a legislative proposal folks in Dallas and Austin have been clamoring for as well: Amending state law (Chapter 573 of the TX Health and Safety Code) to allow health care professionals to handle decisions related to emergency detentions. Right now, only police can do so, and that law is a barrier to removing law enforcement from the equation in non-criminal mental health calls.

Mental health cases are a growing part of HPD's case load, as they are all over the state. In an article on CIRT teams, the Chronicle mentioned that, "In Houston, encounters between police and people with mental illness ballooned over the last decade from 23,913 mental-health calls in 2009 to 40,884 in 2019." That means that the Crisis Call Diversion handles a rather paltry 3.8% of calls.

Importantly, the CIRT teams are not actually "first responders," but "secondary responders" similar to the EMCOT program in Austin, which also appears to go to relatively few calls (10.5%.). What happens to the other 86% of mental health calls? It appears they get the nearest police officer regardless of training. That's both a big waste and heightens the chance that people in mental-health crisis get shot.

What counts as diversion?
The Mayor's task force claims HPD's CIRT teams focused on mental-health cases has a 95.9% rate of "diversion from jails." But that's a miseading figure. Fewer than one in four calls are resolved at the scene; in all other instances, somebody is taken away, usually against their will, and sometimes against the wishes of their parents, guardians, or care givers.

The data shows that more than a third are dropped at hospital emergency departments because area psych hospitals had no space. Since these patients may not have insurance, and ERs are not set up to handle behavioral health issues at any significant scale, this has been a source of complaint for years in many jurisdictions, not just Houston. 

It's time for H-Town to challenge itself to substantially increase the share of mental-health calls met with a non-police response. A major goal should be boosting that "resolved on scene" number from less than 25% to 2/3 or more, reserving "emergency detention" for situations where a person poses a danger to themselves or others. Those criteria may include abusive behavior toward family and there may be good reason to detain any given individual (so spare me the parade of anecdotes in the comments, I get it). But in a huge number of cases there is not; too often, cops take someone based on a "better safe than sorry" logic. After all, the hospital/ambulance bills aren't going to show up in their mailbox months later.

Domestic calls: Do all of them need a cop?
The Task Force endorses a pilot program at HPD for intervention with high-risk domestic violence victims called DART (Domestic Abuse Response Team), which pairs officers with a victim advocate nurse. The pilot has been ongoing since January 2019, operating three nights per week (7pm to 3am) in three HPD districts. No information on how much it would cost to expand.

For that matter, I'd love to see any outcomes or research based on this pilot, comparisons to control groups, etc.. When I searched on the HPD website regarding the program, I only found one responsive web page: This flyer. If it's been going for nearly two years, one would think there'd be something out there.

When agencies do pilots, Grits believes they should always budget a research and data collection component. Domestic violence policies and police responses have always been all over the map. Maybe this is a great program; maybe other approaches would be better. When experimental programs are tested, somebody should be tasked with reporting on what they're doing, including any relevant metrics. Even better: Evaluating the program compared to a control population. That doesn't appear to be have been done yet for DART.

Regardless, Grits remains unconvinced that police need to go to every domestic disturbance call, even as security, as described in the DART program. There must be a response, and if a cops are needed, they should be called. But once the cop engages in violence or pulls their gun, that trumps clinicians' authority or decisions. Sending them only when needed reduces the chances that happens.

Indeed, one can make an argument that cops are simply the wrong messengers on this topic, as our pal Jessica Pishko recently reminded:
Other studies have found that police themselves are often the perpetrators of domestic and sexual violence, rendering them undesirable as a source of help, particularly for women of color who experience much greater rates of violence, including sexual violence, from police. Interactions with the police can also exacerbate existing conditions, like economic instability or trauma.
Pishko quoted law prof Aya Gruber expressing a sentiment your correspondent has held for some time: "victims may be making a rational choice when they decline to testify against their abusers. 'Domestic violence prosecutions have little benefit to women and in fact can harm them,' she explained, 'but the prosecutors are very convinced they are saving women’s lives.'"

Task Force: Decriminalize prostitution! But make them work in criminalized environs.
Grits didn't foresee the Mayor's Task Force recommending that prostitution be decriminalized. That said, they weren't exactly suggesting the re-establishment of the city's red-light district: They still think the state should to prosecute "pimps, brothel and illicit massage parlor owners and managers, sex tourism operators, and sex buyers." But right now, they declare, "Law enforcement is arresting the wrong people."

Here's the oddity: Clearly they consider most prostitutes victims who deserve protection. Different folks feel differently about that, including sex workers, and I'm not trying to launch that debate. But I do question the virtue of claiming to "decriminalize" prostitution and then criminalizing everything about the industry except service provision.

In the age of the internet-personal ad, many prostitutes operate individual sole proprietorships without a formal "pimp" or brothel. For them, the Task Force's distinction doesn't make a difference.

If we're now going to express sympathy for prostitutes, then let's be clear: The biggest dangers they face all stem from the government banning their services and forcing members of the Oldest Profession to provide their wares in a black market. The sole proprietor of the liquor store may rely on police for protection; the sole-proprietor prostitute seeking security must turn to a pimp, which is an inherently unhealthy partnership.

Training: The all-purpose panacea promoted by people who oppose policy change
Look, I'm all for good police training. Indeed, much of what I've learned about police practices (and jailers, and prosecutors, and defense lawyers, and district judges, and appellate judges, and forensic analysts, etc.) has come from attending their professional training sessions, conferences, and CLEs over many years and/or reading training materials (plus chasing down items from their footnotes) from those events. While, between my illness and COVID, 2020 has been a dry spell, in the past I might normally attend several such events per year, including many that put me in rooms filled with police officers. Frankly, I've never had a bad experience doing that and highly recommend it.

That said, having worked on police reform now for more than 25 years, here's Grits' view: "More training" is the first thing reform opponents suggest whenever substantive reforms are proposed. It's always the first "reform" suggested and, as soon as it's implemented, reform opponents push hard to stop there. Every time. Some of the trainings on implicit bias and racial equity in particular appear to have little effect on outcomes. Grits didn't consider it good enough a quarter century ago and it's certainly not good enough now.

Yes, change your policies, train on the improved ones, and consistently, effectively punish officers who fail to follow them. That's how you change departmental culture. But training alone won't help.

Reflections on Mayor's Task Force Recommendations
Having now gone through the entire report, what to make of it as a whole? There are moments where it is bold, for example, recommending changes to the 180-day rule and insisting officers suspected of misconduct should be questioned at the beginning of the investigation process. And I was excited to see the recommendation that un-redacted bodycam video should be released, though I don't agree to limiting that to critical incidents.

Similarly, the suggestions that 1) Houston PD create a complaints database and 2) publish an annual report on disciplinary actions against officers, would constitute a major leap forward in transparency for the department. But it falls short of what's needed: Police departments also need to begin publishing data and detail about use of force incidents in online databases where researchers and the public can access them. Grits knows for a fact legislation requiring that statewide will be filed during the 87th Legislature, and the an executive order from Donald Trump mandated creation of a national database documenting "instances of excessive use of force."

Texas already has good data on police shootings and deaths in custody. That's the next step.

Grits remains less than confident they've figured out the right way to keep Houston cops from shooting people on mental-health calls or domestic disturbance calls. I'd prefer to see them working to expand the subset of those encounters at which police are absent entirely. They can always be called in if needed.

Other suggestions seem more like half measures that don't really get at the problems they hope to solve - redesign a website, issue a report on diversity efforts, etc.. All perfectly reasonable stuff the government must think about, but boring and unlikely to be decisive in addressing the problems.

Finally, I don't believe they've identified the right model for the Independent Police Oversight Board, potentially designing it to perform a fruitless, Sisyphean task that leaves them set up to fail. The Task Force acknowledged that the all-volunteer IPOB needs significant staff to do its job, and that more staff are needed to process complaints, both from the community and from officers themselves. Why not follow Austin's lead and create a full-blown Police Monitor to manage that staff, add value through regular reporting, and to advise the Mayor and Council on issues related to departmental conduct, discipline, and culture from an independent perspective?

Grits sees these Task Force recommendations as the beginning of a conversation, not in any sense the final word on what reform in Houston might look like. If all of them were implemented tomorrow, it would be a Banner Day for Criminal-Justice Reform. And yet, it would be insufficient. In just a few years, many of the same problems would arise.

This report had a great deal of crossover with recommendations from several city council members earlier this week, and was in a sense even more aggressive. Between them, they're a good conversation starter, but now the conversation must move forward. 


Tony2Wolves said...

Scott good to see you are alive and well. I am more to the right side of the isle than you, but I am glad you are here brother! I have not checked in for several years. Just thought about you for no reason. Again very glad to see you are still here as a voice of compassion.


Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thanks Tony. Feeling like "just barely" on the alive and well front. Had throat cancer treatment this year and it aged me. (Dropped 95 lbs from it!) I am improving, have more energy, starting to eat solid foods, etc.. Symptoms all declining and prognosis is good, but it's been a rough stretch. :/