Austin leads in police shootings during mental health calls, study finds
By Heather Osbourne
Sep 24, 2019
Austin has the highest per capita rate of police shootings during mental health calls among the 15 largest U.S. cities, a violation of international human rights standards, according to a report by University of Texas researchers and a local law advocacy group released Tuesday.
The Human Rights Clinic of the University of Texas School of Law and the nonprofit Austin Community Law Center found that of the 24 people killed in Austin police shootings from 2010 through 2016, at least a third of those had confirmed mental health conditions. In comparison with peer cities, Austin falls short of properly training its police force in crisis intervention and de-escalation, the report found. Researchers tallied 20 similar shootings by police where those shot survived.
“Families and friends often call upon the police in times of crisis, without realizing there’s no guarantee a police officer will have the necessary training to respond appropriately in such a situation,” the report said. In many instances, the victims were behaving erratically or threateningly, and police escalated the situation, researchers found.
The report also recommends officers who do not comply with use of force policies should face meaningful disciplinary sanctions.
The Austin Police Department responded to the report in an email Tuesday, stating that officers are taught mental health crisis education and that deadly force should be used as a last resort.
“In particular, APD works closely with organizations like Integral Care and National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) to develop and implement its training for all officers (not just Crisis Intervention Team officers) who must encounter people experiencing mental health crises,” the police email said. The department already commissioned a mental health policy institute to review its mental health training and practices. Officers have worked to implement those recommendations since May, police said.
Tuesday’s 23-page report acknowledges that Austin has begun the process of working to improve its record.
A police shooting that began with officers responding to a mental health call, however, occurred as recently as July 31 at Spring Condominiums in downtown Austin. Police fatally shot 46-year-old Mauris DeSilva, who might have been experiencing a mental breakdown when he wielded a large kitchen knife and moved toward officers, police have said.
An officer with specialized mental health training was dispatched but was delayed while assisting at another incident, according to police.
Tuesday’s report, which was produced in response to a September 2018 audit, appears to back up a major conclusion of the audit: Those who experienced a mental health crisis faced a higher risk of a bad encounter with Austin police officers compared with those in cities more closely in step with international best practices.
“Austin is lagging behind cities like Memphis, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Philadelphia, Phoenix and Seattle in methods for responding to mental health calls, and people are dying as a result,” Brian McGiverin, executive director of Austin Community Law Center, said in a statement. “That is unacceptable.”
McGiverin last month filed a lawsuit alleging excessive force by six Austin police officers during a mental health call in November 2017.
But the groups behind the report note that the 2019-20 Austin city budget includes increased funding for nonpolice responses to mental health calls, and within the past month, Austin Police Chief Brian Manley announced that all Austin officers will receive additional training for mental health calls over the next couple of years.
“I think the steps we’re taking as a department — rolling this training out to every officer — will allow us to better interact with and serve our overall community,” Manley said Aug. 27. “It will equip all of our officers with that advanced training.”