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Houston police chief urges better mental health care for officers

Art Acevedo, the newly hired head of the police force in Texas' largest city, acknowledged at a Tribune symposium on Saturday the difficulty of finding new funding for the effort but argued for its importance.

(L-R) State Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, Jefferson County Sheriff Zena Stephens, Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez and newly appointed Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo discuss race and policing at The Texas Tribune's Symposium on Race and Public Policy at Huston-Tillotson University in Austin on January 14, 2017.

Houston Police Department Chief Art Acevedo said Saturday that the Legislature should increase funding for mental health for police officers, adding this is likely to be a tough issue to tackle ahead of a tight-fisted legislative session.

“It’s something that I’m starting the conversation for,” Acevedo said. “Doing this is not about being punitive. It’s about saving careers, saving marriages and saving lives. It’s the right thing to do.”

Acevedo’s remarks came at a Texas Tribune symposium for race and public policy where panelists discussed the intersection of race and policing. In response to an audience member who asked what works and doesn’t in terms of providing adequate mental health support for police officers, the newly hired Houston police chief said officers typically get screened for mental health disorders before getting hired, but never get tested again unless "we have a fitness-for-duty process."

"I'm a proponent, but I'm not a policymaker. This Legislature [should] provide funding and a requirement that every three to five years an officer should be [re-screened]," Acevedo said. "Don't wait until it's too late. We owe it to those officers and their families and their communities." 

He added that in "police culture" mental health issues can be stigmatized, so officers often don't ask for help.

“It is a very stressful profession,” Acevedo said of being a police officer. “You see a lot of ugly things. You see a lot of tragedy and whether you realize it or not, it starts to pile on. We shouldn’t wait until an officer starts calling in sick because they’ve developed a substance abuse problem. ... I want to destigmatize mental health — especially for cops.”

One week before the 2017 legislative session, a House committee outlined challenges and opportunities for the state in tacking its troubled mental health system. In its 109-page report, the committee said the state appropriated $6.7 billion toward behavioral and mental health services for 2016-17, with half of that funding going to Medicaid. While funding for mental health has increased in the past two legislative sessions, the committee warned that “funds, whether federal, state or local, are limited.”

"The opportunity to improve our mental health system this year is real and it's important," House Speaker Joe Straus said in a news release. "A smarter approach to mental health will improve treatment and care while saving taxpayers money."

Acevedo told the Tribune after his panel that he’s looking to community activists in Texas to push lawmakers to pass reforms, particularly the Austin Justice Coalition, a grassroots, activist-led organization which addresses criminal, economic and social justice at the local level.

“We have a mental health policy team that is building out their platform for mental health,” Sukyi McMahon, director of operations for the Austin Justice Coalition, said. “We’re looking at how calls are dispatched out and the language that the dispatchers are using. We’re also looking at alternatives to calling 911 in a mental health crisis.”

Acevedo acknowledged, however, that he didn’t know if the state was ready to pass such measures, adding that he anticipated it would probably take the Legislature at least three sessions to pass mental health reform for officers.

This is something that’s achievable and the right thing to do for cops and the community,” said Acevedo.

Read more of the Tribune’s related coverage:

  • In a report released in January, Texas House Select Committee on Mental Health members wrote that mental health “is absolutely one of the most critical areas of concern” facing the state.
  • Texas lawmakers tout recent improvements to the state’s mental health safety net, citing new funding and program expansions. But the state still struggles to provide psychiatric care for all patients who need it.
  • A program created recently will help pay mental health professionals’ student loans if they practice in a medically needy area. The program seeks to alleviate the state’s shortage of mental health professionals, which watchdogs are calling a "public health emergency."


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