AUSTIN, Texas — Damian Daniels was a former Army sergeant who was shot and killed in front of his Bexar County home during a mental health crisis in August. He was suffering from hallucinations when his brother called the Red Cross for help. The Red Cross called the Sheriff's Office.
Daniels had a gun under his shirt when deputies tried to bring him in for mental health treatment. They never called for existing mental health help and after a struggle trying to detain him, Daniels was shot by one of the deputies. The shooting is still under investigation.
Now, Daniel's death has led Bexar County to launch a pilot program to better respond to mental health calls.
It's a different way of policing and amid a nationwide movement for racial justice and police reform, it's led other cities across the state to look into such changes.
One program in South Central Dallas is serving as a model. It’s a three-agency partnership where a Parkland Health & Hospital clinician, a Dallas Fire-Rescue paramedic and a Dallas police officer travel in one SUV. They’re members of what’s called the RIGHT Care initiative and together they play crucial roles in answering mental health crisis calls.
“We love our job, because we genuinely care about society and the citizens that that we work for,” said Dallas Officer Aaron Rucker.
Officer Rucker’s responsibility is scene security. He has a background in social work and says he understands compassion is integral to this work.
“Sometimes, you know, coming on a call, just having a uniform sometimes brings up anxiety for people, because they may have had a history that may not have been so pleasant,” he said. “So my job is to make sure that from that point forward, it's a good experience, and they know that I'm here to help.”
RIGHT Care stands for Rapid Integrated Group Healthcare Team. It started in 2018 after a study from the Meadows Mental Health Institute found the number of mental health-related calls increased by 18 percent from 2012 through 2015. The report also says the Dallas County Jail acts as the main treatment provider for people with mental illnesses who are involved with the criminal justice system. That’s something agency officials wanted to change.
“The goal of RIGHT Care is to more effectively and more appropriately handle psychiatric or mental health calls in the field, taking the care right to where a situation is needed, versus our traditional approach throughout the city of either taking someone to a medical facility or to jail,” said Lt. Isaac Gooch of Dallas Fire-Rescue.
Once the police officer deems the situation safe, the paramedic assesses the person’s physical health and determines if there are immediate medical concerns. Forty-two year fire department veteran Abel Ramirez knows about getting clients where they need to go.
“Not only that they are guided to the right centers where they can take care of their needs, but also deviated from the ones that are not needed to be on,” he said.
Then social workers like Kristin Peterson step in to evaluate a client’s mental health and social well-being.
“It is such an urgent crisis for them,” Peterson said. “Things have become the absolute worst case for them…We're connecting patients to the help that they have been looking for some time and they didn't know it was available to them.”
According to Parkland Hospital officials, 30 percent of the RIGHT Care team’s encounters are diverted from jail or the hospital.
“You're not just kind of sending a patient out into the world by themselves, you know, you're able to kind of assist that patient with connecting the dots and connecting the resources to the patient a lot a lot better than if you were kind of working solo or in isolation,” said Kurtis Young, director of social work for behavioral health at Parkland.
Critics of the program question why a police officer needs to be in the situation in the first place. Activists have argued an armed officer could escalate the situation. But B.J. Wagner, the architect of the RIGHT Care program, says most intervention teams continue to consider law enforcement at the forefront of that response.
“Law enforcement officers are always going to have to respond to calls that cause public safety concerns,” Wagner of the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute said. “We want to make sure that when those public safety concerns include someone who’s in mental distress, that they have the recourses they need to have professional, medical resources on scene.”
Howard Henderson, who founded the Center for Justice Research at Texas Southern University which has recently formed a National Police Reform Advisory Group, echoed Wagner.
“Crisis intervention is the name of the game of policing in the 21st century,” he said. “It eliminates the challenges police officers have had for so long and that is looking at doing jobs that are outside they’re traditional scope of work. What this does is provides specialization and allows experts to get in there and move forward and protect society.”