Harris County unarmed HART team responds to 1,000 911 Calls! - 10/2022
In north Harris County, TX a concerned store owner recently called 911 for help with a woman who was acting erratically inside the building. Rather than police responding, a team of professionals trained in mental health and social work arrived at the scene and reunited the woman – a mother with early onset dementia – with her daughter, who was searching for her. The response was one of now 1,000 emergency calls processed by Harris County Precinct 1’s Holistic Assistance Response Team (HART), Lupe Washington, director of the Harris County Public Health Department’s community health and violence prevention division, said Thursday. The initiative aims to free up police resources and connect people with resources that are better equipped to help people in non-crime related crises.
“Our team was able to get out, and of course the mother was disoriented,” Washington said that the HART team responded instead of law enforcement.” The HART team also responded to a call from a mother whose daughter had taken a drug overdose and was locked in her room. HART members were able to persuade the daughter to come out of her room as well as offer the family counseling.
Harris County District 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis proposed the program in the summer of 2021. Such programs have been a popular solution for advocates of criminal justice reform, who say police are not best equipped to respond to mental health calls. If mishandled, police action can be deadly; According to a 2015 report by the Treatment Advocacy Center, a nonprofit that promotes access to mental health care; people with untreated mental illness are 17 times more likely to be shot dead by police. HART’s unarmed team members are an alternative to a police operation.
But the initiative is not without its critics. When the program was first announced in August 2021, Harris County Association Vice President David Cuevas expressed concern that law enforcement would have to step in if situations turned violent, saying, “You should never send civilian personnel into a situation where law enforcement is required to start with.”
Harris County Republican judge nominee Alexandra del Moral Mealer questioned which calls the HART team responded to, saying mental health 911 calls could quickly become violent and endanger the lives of social workers and the public. Mealer asked the county to release the categories of the 1,000 calls handled by the HART team. “If I call 911 in a potentially violent situation, like with a suspect, I expect a trained law enforcement officer to show up,” Mealer said. “The November election is about this very issue: if you dial 911, do you want a social worker to answer or a trained sheriff’s deputy?”
FINANCING THE ENFORCEMENT: Cops pack Harris County courtroom for debate on police funding before Hidalgo broke up the briefing. Currently, the pilot program is only available in Precinct 1 in North Harris County. The team, led by the Harris County Department of Health, handles 911 calls where there is no criminal activity and has assisted nearly 700 people to date. The team now responds to nearly 20 percent of the 911 calls in its service area, and its responses have given law enforcement 675 hours to respond to other calls, Harris County Sheriff’s Deputy Office Superintendent Mike Lee said. “We’ve asked too much of our friends in law enforcement when it comes to 911 calls for people going through a crisis or struggling with health issues and homelessness,” Ellis said. “Just a few months later, we are hearing incredible real-world success stories emerging from this HART program.” At Thursday’s news conference, Lee called the arrangement a “win-win.” “Officials today still find themselves in situations where they have to deal with non-stop calls centered around poverty, lack of financial resources, substance abuse and addiction, and mental illness,” Lee said. “And I can tell you, police officers, while we are very proud of the education that we have undergone, we are not best equipped for it and we recognize that it should not be our primary mission.”The program is administered by the Harris County Department of Health, and none of the $5 million budget for the Department of Health’s HART team and Community Violence Interruption Program has been diverted from law enforcement, Lee said.“Not a single gun has been taken from Harris County law enforcement to fund this alternative,” Lee said. “It’s not an either/or; it’s both.”