When Police Officer Frank Webb joined the Houston Police Department 34 years ago, he said there was little interaction between cops and people with mental health issues.
“In 1980 this wasn’t a problem,” he said. “We rarely dealt with a person in a mental health crisis.”
By the end of the decade, he said that had changed. Over that period, Officer Webb said mental health hospitals were deinstitutionalized and many former patients ended up on the streets.
“There was a lack of resources to get treatment and eventually some of those people had run-ins with law enforcement,” he said.
As the police department’s contact with consumers grew in the early 1990s, Officer Webb was brought in to streamline the department’s emergency detention process, specifically to reduce the length of time it took for someone to be evaluated and treated when they were violent.
As a result of his recommendations, the process was cut from 7 hours to 30 minutes, an accomplishment that began his 30 plus year involvement in the mental health sector.
The Houston Police Department’s Mental Health Unit quickly became one of the most sophisticated in the country, but that didn’t happen without its challenges.
Officer Webb said that the biggest roadblock to building the program was changing the entrenched mindset of his fellow officers about mental illness.
“When we developed the first class on mental illness in 1993, the majority of officers had a very negative attitude toward mental illness,” he said. “They didn’t believe it was our job to respond to people with mental illness, and they didn’t view the mental health professionals we brought in positively.”
Over time that barrier softened as more officers were trained on the fundamentals of mental illness and the clinicians that they work with provided more assistance and guidance.
“We’ve had a 180-degree change in attitude,” he said.
In 2006, the force launched its Mental Health Unit and that was expanded in 2013 into what Officer Webb believes is the first Mental Health Division in the country. The Division consists of 33 officers and 20 clinicians from the Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority of Harris County.
“This has become one of the most important issues in criminal justice today,” Officer Webb said. “I believe our program has helped save lives and helped families with an illness that they didn’t even know existed.”
Officer Webb said that their training has also helped people on the force.
“Three years ago I was training officers on PTSD and after one of those classes an officer came to talk with me about a problem that she was having,” he said.
The officer was involved in a shooting and had killed the suspect during the incident. Officer Webb said that the officer was having difficulty after taking a human life.
“After our talk she said that she was going to seek help,” he said. “It was very rewarding that we were able to help her.
The Mental Health Division is currently piloting a 911 Diversion Program where licensed crisis intervention workers field incoming calls. Officer Webb said that it will sometimes eliminate the need for police to be sent to the scene and can help deescalate incidents. Another program being piloted is The Senior Justice Assessment Center, which focuses on helping seniors with dementia, Alzheimer’s, and other mental health illnesses.
He said one of his most gratifying personal experiences was finding out a fellow Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) officer joined the force because of her brother’s interaction with the unit. She said her brother was deployed to Iraq and when he returned he was angry and using drugs and alcohol, Officer Webb explained. The police were called to their home several times.
On one call, a CIT officer showed up and the brother had a knife. The officer settled him down and took him to emergency detention. He was later diagnosed as bipolar and put on medication.
“After a couple of months, he was almost back to himself,” Officer Webb said. “That was the main reason his sister joined the force — to help others.”