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Model Telehealth Program for Law Enforcement: Another First for Harris County

By Frank Webb Project Manager – Patrol Bureau Harris County Sheriff’s Office

Police officers are increasingly responding to individuals in behavioral health crisis at the same time mental health resources are decreasing. Law enforcement agencies are searching for affordable ways to fill these gaps in services and the means to access mental health professionals to assist officers on these calls. The solution is technology.

Harris County is on the forefront of telehealth for patrol deputies. Harris County’s program, titled Clinician and Officer Remote Evaluation (CORE), is one of a few of its type in the nation. The idea was that of Dr. Avrim Fishkind, the first medical director of the NeuroPsychiatric Center (NPC) and a pioneer in telemedicine and behavioral health crisis programs. Dr. Fishkind approached the Harris County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) with the idea. A three-week pilot was conducted in December 2017 that was a complete success. The HCSO continued with the pilot and completed its third and final phase in December 2019. Harris County Commissioners’ Court recently approved funding to make this a permanent program in the HCSO.

The program, a collaboration between the HCSO and The Harris Center for Mental Health and IDD (The Harris Center), uses technology to connect a patrol deputy with a masters-level clinician via an iPad. Goals/benefits of the program include:

  • Consumer and deputy safety;
  • Improved triage of calls;
  • Prevention of unnecessary transports to hospitals, mental health facilities, and jail.

With the recent funding by Harris County Commissioners’ Court, the HCSO will be able to provide iPads to 100 deputies. The Harris Center is seeking additional state funding to expand the program to the Houston Police Department and other law enforcement agencies in Harris County.

Arnold Ventures learned of Harris County’s program and enthusiastically funded an evaluation. The evaluation is being conducted by the University of HoustonDowntown (UHD). A mid-term evaluation was completed in November 2019. The time period of the evaluation was December 2018 – Mid-May 2019. The number of deputies involved in the evaluation was 20. The following are among UHD’s findings:

  • 81% of the deputies stated they would have called a co-responder unit to their scene if they did not have the iPad;
    77% stated the clinician helped them identify resources;
  • 63% stated they would have transported the patient to a hospital emergency department or mental health facility if they did not have access to the clinician;
  • 73% stated the clinician helped de-escalate the patient;
  • 83% stated the clinician helped them decide on the course of action to take ;and
  • 71% stated the clinician helped them handle the call in a shorter period of time.

The final evaluation is scheduled for May 2019. The mid-term evaluation was instrumental in Harris County Commissioners’ Court’s decision to fund the program.

We believe telehealth is the future of policing regarding law enforcement response to individuals with mental illness. Programs are starting across the nation. HarrisCounty developed an Implementation Guide to assist agencies interested in starting a program. Jurisdictions requesting a copy of the Implementation Guide or starting programs based on Harris County’s include the following:

  • San Diego, CA
  • El Paso, TX
  • Grand Traverse County, MI
  • Upstate, NY
  • Toledo, OH
  • Austin, TX
  • Plano, TX

CORE is another example of the model collaboration that exists between law enforcement and behavioral health in Harris County. It is also another example of the model programs in Harris County for responding to individuals with mental illness and to the homeless. We believe telehealth will be the standard used by law enforcement across the United States and the world. Five years from now, we will look back and wonder why we didn’t think of it sooner!

Thanks to Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, Harris County Commissioners, HarrisCounty Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, The Harris Center CEO Wayne Young, Dr. Avrim Fishkind,Arnold Ventures, and the University of Houston Downtown for making this program possible.

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