Mental health clinic to partner with law enforcement for crisis calls

PILLAR recently announced a new partnership with law enforcement to effectively respond to calls involving people with mental illness or other disabilities.
Published: Mar. 25, 2021 at 8:23 PM CDT
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LAREDO, Tex. (KGNS) - Last week, KGNS reported a Zapata County father was shot and killed by police during a welfare check.

This is one example of what everyone involved wants to avoid, including a local mental health clinic.

PILLAR recently announced a new partnership with law enforcement to effectively respond to calls involving people with mental illness or other disabilities.

PILLAR is a non-profit mental health organization and substance abuse treatment facility.

After receiving $4 million in federal funding, they announced a 24/7 crisis intervention service.

Officers will be paired with a trained counselor when responding to calls relating to mental health issues or people in crisis.

They hope this will decrease incarceration by 30% and emergency visits by 25%.

“He was texting with my daughter, sending messages like ‘goodbye to her and the kids.’ So she got scared. He told her to please send help to him because he was scared for what was about to happen,” said Esmeralda Jaime, the mother-in-law of a Zapata County father who died in an officer-involved shooting.

Angel Degollado had a toddler and one on the way, He was shot and killed by police during a mental health check on March 14.

The man’s mother-in-law spoke with KGNS in a previous interview.

“The way I see it, we do not have somebody we can trust. They don’t have the skills to stop a person from killing themselves- from harming themselves,” Jaime said.

That’s where trained counselors step in.

“With respect to the police officers, sometimes they are not trained, and so that’s where we want to lend a helping hand to that as well to educate them and also be a support because we will be on site to go ahead and assess,” said Elizabeth Reyna Gardner, a PILLAR counselor.

PILLAR’s 24-hour crisis intervention service is one of a few of its kind across the United States as some police departments and local governments have been slow to address the need.

In 2015, an Afghanistan veteran from Atlanta was shot and killed by police after he ran outside naked with a knife.

This past January, a Killeen, Texas, man was shot and killed by police during a mental health check.

And exactly one week ago, a 79-year-old man was shot and killed by police in his Pasadena home during a mental health check.

There are just three examples of many instances making national headlines.

“That became something very problematic and alarming to see that a lot of the officers hadn’t been properly trained and how they used force excessively sometimes with people who had mental health issues,” Gardner said.

The goal is to help officers differentiate between the appropriate course of action -- jail, hospital or mental health clinic.

Inv. Joe Baeza with the Laredo Police Department says their officers are required to undergo mental health training.

They’re also required by the state of Texas to take 40 hours of training in de-escalation tactics to maintain their peace officer license.

“The expansion and evolvement of that training and capability is very pivotal to being able to have a successful outcome, and by successful outcome I mean that the person who is having the crisis gets the help that they need, and that the officer gets to go home in one piece,” Inv. Baeza said.

Not all crisis encounters are fatal or even end in the discharge of a firearm.

On Oct. 28 of last year, Laredo police officers and the SWAT team responded to a call of a man who was going through what they called “emotional turmoil.”

What began as a welfare check turned into an hour-long standoff, but no one was injured, and the man was taken to the hospital.

“It is so essential to be able to get that training to our officers so that everyone included, the officer and the person having a crisis, can go home at the end of the day,” Inv. Baeza said.

Some de-escalation tactics officers are trained in include establishing a line of communication with the person in crisis and attempting to keep them calm.

They are also trained in use of force and how to assess the best course of action when making split-second decisions.

LPD says details are still being worked out on what the partnership with PILLAR will look like.

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