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Report: Texas falling short on police safety during mental health crises

Since January 2000, 79 peace officers in Texas have been shot and killed in the line of duty. For its mini-doc series, “Fallen,” KXAN-TV researched the background of each killer to find common themes — commonly, mental illness.

By Josh Hinkle and David Barer, KXAN-TV
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Editor's note: This investigation, "Fallen," was produced by KXAN-TV in Austin. 

When Bell County Constable Thomas Prado neared the railroad tracks in the Texas town of Little River-Academy on June 19, 2014, he could see his friend’s patrol car sitting in the driveway. His friend’s body was sprawled across the porch just feet away, blood pouring from a gunshot wound to his head.

“I could see his feet sticking out,” Prado said. “Then I saw that man hovering above him.”

That man standing on the porch was David Risner. He had just opened fire on the small-town police chief, Lee Dixon.

“He murdered my friend,” Prado said. “Cold-blooded, like a dog, murdered him. Shot him at point blank range.”

Minutes earlier, Prado was racing down a rural highway to provide backup for Dixon, who had just pulled up to Risner’s house over reports of a road rage incident. 

Risner and Dixon argued on the porch. Risner retreated inside the house and fetched his pump-action shotgun. Dixon screamed his final words, captured on his dash camera microphone: “Show me your hands. Show me!”

“We were dealing with the devil,” Prado said. “That man was pure evil.”

Risner’s defense team made a different case in court, revealing a long history of mental illness they argued might have triggered his crime.  

Mental health and police killings

Between January 2000 and May 2017, 79 peace officers in Texas have been shot and killed in the line of duty. For this project, “Fallen,” KXAN researched the background of each killer to find common themes across those cases. Many of the killers had histories of crime, violence and drug abuse. About a third of the killers had a history of mental illness, according to media, court and police records. 

This investigation involved a 10-month analysis of court and police records, medical histories, media reports and dash and body camera footage, much of it obtained under the Texas Public Information Act.

The research revealed shortfalls in police protection statewide: a need for improved mental health training for officers and better communication between law enforcement agencies about potentially violent individuals with mental health issues.

History of mental illness

For nearly 20 years, Risner was a police officer himself. Like Dixon, he was a pillar in his community. He served in a variety of posts in East Texas, even running for Van Zandt County sheriff in 1996, before moving to Little River-Academy. 

“He got all sorts of awards for being an excellent officer,” said Russell Hunt, Risner’s defense attorney. “He was active in community organizations and a local church.”

But Risner changed after serving as a contractor in Iraq in 2005, Hunt said. While training police officers there, his team’s compound was bombed. After returning to the U.S., doctors eventually discovered Risner had a traumatic brain injury and diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder.

In nearly 20 percent of the cases examined by KXAN, the killers who had a mental illness also previously served in law enforcement, the military or both. 

Risner was ultimately charged with capital murder of a police officer, making him eligible for the death penalty. At trial, his defense team pointed to brain scans that they said showed brain injuries they believed were a key part of his violent reaction toward Dixon.

“There are some areas [of Risner’s brain] that are really compromised, especially when it is related to aggression or violence,” said John Fabian, a forensic psychologist who testified about the scans in court. “He was delusional, angry and irritable, and would be set off immediately by something that would have been a benign or insignificant trigger. He snapped.”

Mental health training

The state of Texas offers an optional 40-hour course to become a certified mental health officer. The curriculum stresses de-escalation techniques during crisis situations and teaches officers when to call for assistance from a mental health professional and how to gauge the best outcome for a person who may have a mental illness.

Texas has more than 77,000 licensed peace officers, but just 7 percent have that training. About a quarter of the Texas officers shot and killed by someone with a mental illness since 2000 had that training, and Dixon was not one of them.

Texas already requires officers to undergo 16 hours of crisis intervention training. But during the current legislative session, lawmakers introduced legislation to require all future law enforcement cadets to take the full 40-hour course. As the session nears its end, that bill – dubbed the Sandra Bland Act after the 28-year-old woman who was found dead in the Waller County jail days after being arrested during a routing traffic stop – passed the Senate and is pending in the House.

“I think if everyone is trained, then they go into [a situation where] they understand what they might be confronting,” said state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, who is among those pushing the mental health-related legislation. “There are certain tools that we can use to keep everyone safe and also have a better dialogue between the public and the police.”

Prior to the session, an interim panel of lawmakers — the House Select Committee on Mental Health — heard testimony from a variety of police organizations about training.

“The angle we took on the committee was, how do we ensure that we are not just throwing our law enforcement into a scenario that is potentially very dangerous without the proper training?” said the committee’s vice chair, Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso. “But any training is only as good as the last time it was refreshed.”

Many law enforcement leaders agree. Limestone County Sheriff Dennis Wilson, who serves as president of the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas, said he advocates continuous training over the course of an officer’s career.

“In the academy, the young cadets ... across our nation want to get out on the streets, and mental health is not a popular subject for them,” Wilson said. “The training has to be ongoing and updated and kept fresh because there’s always new techniques out there that need to be implemented in the field.”

Crisis intervention 

Some police agencies, like the Austin Police Department, already require more mental health training for their cadets than the state mandates. APD includes 40 hours in its academy.

“Crisis intervention training is not just to keep the consumer safe and the community,” said Special Police Officer James Turner, who helps organize APD’s training. “It’s also an officer safety course.”

To best respond to mental health calls in the field, APD partners with a handful of community groups, such as Integral Care, a local mental health authority.

“Austin patrol officers can dispatch mobile crisis teams through their radios and request that a mobile crisis specialist, a licensed clinician, come out on scene,” said Integral Care’s Laura Wilson-Slocum. “That could involve the person staying in the community and the mobile crisis teams following up in 90 days.”

She said it can also result in voluntary admission to a hospital, placing a person under emergency detention or, in extreme circumstances, jail. But Turner emphasized that unless a crime is committed, jail should not be an automatic outcome.

“The one thing we preach to our cadets and officers every day is to show compassion in these moments because you never know when you’re going to be trying to get someone help who is somebody’s brother, somebody’s sister,” said Turner. “That could be our loved one.”

Groups like Mental Health America of Texas are concerned that without partnerships and more training for police, there is the risk of needlessly criminalizing people with mental illness, which already comes with many misconceptions.

“People with mental illness are not all potential criminals,” MHA of Texas’ public policy director, Gyl Switzer, said. “We need to understand the role of law enforcement because they’re not social workers.” 

But recognizing the signs of mental illness is only part of what could protect police on such calls. Knowing the history of individuals in crisis could be key to survival. 

Sharing mental health details

Chief Dixon "just didn’t know who he was dealing with,” said Prado. “If you don’t know them, how are you supposed to know what their mental capacity is before?”

Risner had a criminal past that involved threats against law enforcement. Following his time in Iraq, police arrested Risner multiple times, including one instance that led to a deadly conduct charge for shooting over an officer’s head. In another instance, Temple police discovered an AK-47 mounted to the inside of the trunk door of Risner’s sedan during a traffic stop.

In each instance, police referenced Risner’s mental state in some form, court records show. It is unclear if Dixon was aware of the specific details of Risner’s criminal past, even though most of the arrests were in the same county as Little River-Academy. Though Temple sits just 11 miles away, it does not appear Dixon received a Temple police safety alert about Risner, which said he stowed weapons in his car and had “possession of other weapons.”

It's possible Dixon never received that information because law enforcement agencies across Texas do not use a comprehensive, statewide, interconnected network to share and quickly access such details. 

Many local agencies do have the ability to share some data through computer systems, such as Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) or Record Management Systems (RMS). However, those networks do not sync up to the state’s own information-sharing network — the Texas Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (TLETS), which is managed by the Texas Department of Public Safety, according to a DPS spokesperson.

Kevin Lawrence, executive director of the Texas Municipal Police Officers Association, likened TLETS, which is state-funded, to an internal law enforcement internet. 

Through TLETS, officers can access traffic accident data and criminal histories, among other things, Lawrence said. Departments can also alert one another to specific threats through a teletype, which is like an email. But “you have to have specific information at that moment – intelligence you can pass on. There is no global database to put that information into,” he said.

Over 1,700 law enforcement and criminal justice agencies utilize TLETS, according to DPS. Those member agencies can send alerts through TLETS to targeted databases, which can be broadcast regionally or statewide. Mental health information “is carefully guarded,” though, and must rise to the level of a credible threat before details are distributed, a DPS spokesman said.

Having such a statewide database capable of simply retaining and sharing the mental health history of people coming into contact with police could lead to privacy issues, Lawrence said. 

“We want to respect the rights of individuals. We want to respect their privacy, and we don’t want to stigmatize people,” he said. “Let’s face it: The vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent. They are not a danger.”

Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, echoed that sentiment on the sharing of mental health information. Krause introduced a “blue alert” bill this legislative session that would create a statewide alert to help capture people suspected of killing or hurting a law enforcement officer. 

“There is a fine line between making sure you have the information you need and not overstepping privacy boundaries,” Krause said. “I hope we’re able to take some major strides pretty soon.”

But while state leaders wrestle with privacy issues, a company called COPsync has already created such a network. In Texas alone, 550 law enforcement agencies subscribe to the system, according to COPsync officials.

The system lets officers communicate and share information across jurisdictional lines, including officer notes, traffic warrants and vehicle locators. The system also retains background details on people coming into contact with police — like signs of mental illness.

Guadalupe County Constable Michael Skrobarcek uses COPsync on both his phone and his in-car computer. He said such details come to him immediately without having to call dispatch or wait for other data to catch up. 

“We had a guy the other day who wouldn’t stop for us, and we chased him for about 15 minutes,” Skrobarcek said. “He felt bugs on him and said people were following him, so we entered those specifics into COPsync. Now, anybody else who runs his tag is going to know he’s going to need some mental health help.”

The founders of the company were colleagues of Trooper Randall Vetter, who was shot and killed in the line of duty in 2000 by a man attorneys argued showed signs of mental illness. He had previously threatened to kill police officers, but that information was never relayed to Vetter.

“Seventeen years ago, how was that information disseminated?” asked Vetter’s widow, Cynthia, who now serves as the spokeswoman for COPsync. “It was sent via fax machine and tacked to a bulletin board — not information that was readily available in a patrol car.”

The basic cost of COPsync is about $100 per officer per month. At that amount, outfitting all police officers across the state would cost over $92 million per year.

Wilson, with the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas, said he knows of COPsync and believes it is a good system. But it ultimately comes down to funding, especially outside big cities.

“We always talk about money, and that money is in short supply when you go to the rural areas,” Wilson said.

COPsync officials said former state Rep. Allen Fletcher, R-Tomball, a retired police officer, expressed interest in the system but did not run for re-election last term. Since then, COPsync has not been included in funding decisions.

“From the officer’s perspective, I think I would like to know what people in my community might potentially be a threat before they become a threat,” said Hunt. “The problem in our situation is we’ve got an officer from Little River-Academy, a tiny municipality, who probably didn’t have access to those records.”

A jury found Risner guilty of Dixon’s murder in 2016. After hearing testimony about Risner’s mental illness and weighing his threat level, jurors were unable to agree on the death penalty. He received an automatic sentence of life in prison with no possibility of parole.

“I think David feels bad for Chief Dixon’s wife and family, but part of David’s mental disorder is that he is extremely rigid in his manner of thinking,” Hunt added. “He does truly believe that he was justified in his actions.”

Read related Tribune coverage: 

  • In the aftermath of the fatal shooting of an unarmed 15-year-old by police on Saturday night, Democrats in the state Capitol have pointed to relevant billsthey say could prevent similar deaths and hold police accountable.
  • The Tribune’s Unholstered project from 2016 presents the results of a nearly yearlong investigation into when and why officers used lethal force in Texas, examining shootings that occurred in the state's largest cities between 2010 and 2015.

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