New Plan to Keep the Mentally Ill Out of Jail

Jim Womack, Texas Panhandle Mental Health Spokesman
Jim Womack, Texas Panhandle Mental Health Spokesman

Local mental health experts say a partnership they're starting is designed to avoid incidents like the Childress police shooting.

Family members say the man who brought a shotgun into the town's police department suffers from schizophrenia. With the new program in place, when a mental health patient runs into trouble with the law, specially trained Amarillo police officers and mental health experts can get involved  right away. It's called Mobile Crisis Outreach, and Texas Panhandle Mental Health authorities now have six hundred thousand dollars in state money to put it into practice over the next two years.

"Our staff and APD's responding at the same time.. they can see what the need is right at that moment and get them diverted out and alot of times even avoiding hospitalization," says Texas Panhandle Mental Health spokesman Jim Womack. He points out before, police officers could do little to assist in a mental health crisis, unless a patient threatened harm to himself or others.   Now they can help put patients on a treatment plan.

Womack also points out schizophrenics are no more prone to violent crime than anyone else. "Statistically there's not any difference between somebody with schizophrenia committing a crime and somebody that's not mentally ill committing a crime. People with schizophrenia might be more likely to commit criminal trespass, that kind of thing, just because of their symptoms," says Womack.

He adds in the past month, 23 mental health patients have avoided jail or hospitalization thanks to the new joint initiative.