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Houston police see increase in mental health calls since start of COVID-19 pandemic

This year, HPD is looking to give more officers access to mental health professionals when they’re out on a call.

HOUSTON — On the streets of Houston, fighting crime isn’t the only job police officers are doing these days.

“We can say we have seen an increase in mental health related calls for service to HPD," Asst. Chief Wendy Baimbridge, with the Houston Police Department, said.

She said mental health calls are up 10% overall since the pandemic started. Specific calls like mental health related assaults with weapons are up 83%, suicides with a weapon up 40%, and mental health related disturbances with a weapon up 37%. Those numbers do not represent the actual number of suicides, only the number of calls coming into police.

While the numbers are up, this isn’t a new trend.

“We can’t decisively say, it’s because of COVID or the lockdown,” Baimbridge said.

KHOU 11 Investigates found the number of mental health calls HPD received over the last five years is on the rise as well from 35,898 calls in 2015 to 40,884 in 2019.

To combat those numbers, HPD has for years partnered with the Harris Center to dispatch Crisis Intervention Response Teams. Clinicians and officers ride together to respond to mental health calls.

“We’ve had a long history, more so than many other large mental health centers with our police department," Dr. Daryl Knox, chief medical officer for the Harris Center, said. “We realize they are generally first responders, many people with mental illnesses show up in the street, they are not really thinking very well, they might come into trouble with the law.”

However, the Harris Center and HPD know response teams can’t make every call, which is why the department now includes crisis intervention training for every cadet.

This year, HPD is looking to give more officers access to mental health professionals when they’re out on a call. It’s a pilot program through a tablet, similar to telemedicine, they hope to roll out later this year to some officers.

“Our hope is that our citizens are reaching out to their mental health caretakers instead of law enforcement, if it’s not an emergency situation, if they don’t need police, if they don’t need fire – that’s our hope," Baimbridge said.

If you need help, there’s a free resource and it’s available 24/7. The Harris Center set up a COVID hotline for the state of Texas (833) 986-1919. Since March, roughly 20% of the calls they’ve answered have come from Harris County.