Two bills passed the state Senate today that would change the way mentally and physically disabled people and children are restrained and cared for by law enforcement officers.
A bill by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, would still allow law enforcement officers to detain a mentally ill patient in a jail in case of an emergency, but clarifies that “time and convenience” do not constitute one. Only if a hospital bed or other appropriate facility is more than 75 miles away can a mentally ill person be detained in jail, and then, at most, for 12 hours. The intent of the bill is to prevent jail suicides. According to the bill analysis, more than half of jail suicides occur within the first 24 hours of incarceration.
The bill would also prohibit hog-tying — a practice sometimes used to restrain mentally ill persons, which has caused some to die from asphyxiation.
“In rural communities … there most likely won’t be very many rural health facilities available,” said Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, “which leaves rural hospitals as the only option.” He told legislators he feared detaining mentally ill people could overwhelm rural hospital staff who are not properly trained to care for them.
Zaffirini said she’s been working to address concerns about the bill for four years, but that she would be open to revisiting the legislation if it has an unmanageable impact on rural hospitals.
The bill could also put financial strain on local communities as they will be required to develop and maintain appropriate short-term detention alternatives. According to the bill’s fiscal note, the legislation would not cost the state any money, and sheriffs' departments could save some funds by incarcerating people for less time and using fewer psychotropic drugs. But overall, arranging proper detention centers could have a “a negative financial effect” that is “difficult to quantify.”
The second bill, by Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, would require peace officers working for school districts to receive special training in how to properly restrain children, particularly physically and mentally disabled children.
Existing law requires all school employees to be properly trained in restraining physically or mentally disabled children, but it specifically excludes police officers. Davis said this creates confusion over whether peace officers hired by school districts, who are often called on to restrain disabled children, have proper training.
“This is about making sure they’re allowed to require that training and expect of that peace officer ... that they would utilize the same restraint mechanisms that any other school district employee would employ,” said Davis, adding that the bill received support from the law enforcement community while in committee.
Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, expressed concern, saying he feared the bill “could create some ambiguity in the law that wasn’t previously there” and potentially put peace officers in difficult legal situations. Whether police officers are hired by the district or not, they have proper training on how to restrain people, Ogden said.
But Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, backed up Davis, saying, “The techniques that they use outside in the world, outside the school district are very different,” and peace officers in a position to restrain disabled children “require a certain type of training that’s very different from your normal law enforcement.”