Imagine you’re a cop. You show up to a scene where someone is clearly suffering some psychiatric crisis. They haven’t committed a crime, but they have a firearm.
“Nowhere in the code does it say a police officer has the right to take the gun,” said Lt. Michael Lee of the Houston Police Department.
After hearing from stakeholders across Texas, mental health advocates, judges and law enforcement officials are urging state lawmakers to overhaul the nearly 30-year-old mental health code to address gaps like that one.
Lawmakers have taken a significant interest in mental health issues in the wake of mass shootings like the one in Newtown, Conn., in December that left 20 schoolchildren and six elementary school staff members dead. But lawmakers have said that a major overhaul of the mental health code is not likely to happen this legislative session — they haven’t held the appropriate interim hearings and studies for that massive an undertaking. Still, advocates say, there are a few critical changes lawmakers could make to the code that might prevent tragedies that can sometimes occur when people suffer from mental crises.
The Hogg Foundation for Mental Health issued a grant to Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit organization that advocates for social justice, which hired Dr. Susan Stone, a psychiatrist and lawyer, who traveled the state holding meetings to gather input on what is and isn't working in the Texas mental health code. The code was last substantively reviewed in 1985.
“The mental health code really needs to be revised,” Stone said. “Clearly, the mental health system has changed drastically since then."
In a report issued in September, a task force that reviewed the input from across the state recommended the current code be repealed and completely replaced.
“The current code is unwieldy and difficult to navigate,” they concluded.
Their report contains dozens of recommendations to streamline and update the ways in which government deals with people who suffer from mental illness. HPD's Lee put particular emphasis on measures that give law enforcement officers authority to protect those who are ill and those who might be endangered by someone in crisis. As the population of mentally ill Texans increases, he said, police are often the primary government authority with whom they come into contact.
“There’s a lot of confusion around who's supposed to do what that’s not addressed by the code,” Lee said.
A key suggestion from the report, he said, is giving officers specific authority to confiscate weapons from people who might be a danger to themselves or others. It also recommends instituting a court process to oversee the return of the weapons to patients when and if they recover.
Lee said he and others in law enforcement are working with lawmakers to develop legislation that would address at least that gap in the mental health code.
“That’s one issue out there that both sides can take a look at and say, ‘This makes sense,’” he said.