Fatal use of force by APD during mental health calls violates human rights, report finds

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An Austin Police Department vehicle. KXAN Photo.

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Human Rights Clinic of the University of Texas at Austin School of Law and the nonprofit Austin Community Law Center released a report Tuesday which alleges that Austin police are violating international human rights standards during mental health calls.

The report analyzed a 2018 city audit which found that Austin has the highest per capita rate of police shootings during mental health calls of the fifteen largest cities in the United States.

“It is a human rights problem,” said professor Ariel Dulitzky of the Human Rights Clinic. “The corpus juris of international human rights which is built on a framework of treaties, conventions, resolutions and declarations – both prohibits the police from arbitrarily taking a person’s life, and requires states to guarantee equal rights for people with disabilities. It is evident the Austin Police Department is violating both.”

The report acknowledges the city has already taken steps to improve how it responds to mental health crises, noting that Austin’s 2019-20 budget increases funding for responses to mental health calls that don’t involve a police response.

“However, it remains incumbent upon the Mayor and City Council to ensure that the money is used to effectively address this crisis with the urgency it demands,” the report’s authors say.

The report recommends that APD provide officers with training to increase awareness of people with “psychosocial disabilities” and training on de-escalation. The report’s authors clarified for KXAN that the term “psychosocial disabilities” includes anyone who has a disability that interferes with a major life function or requires special treatment, which could include things like hallucinating or having suicidal thoughts.

The report also calls for officers who do not comply with use-of-force policies to receive “meaningful disciplinary sanctions.” It also encourages the city to improve services for those with psychosocial disabilities to reduce the frequency of how often those individuals come into contact with the police.

Additionally, the report recommends things like refresher courses for officers on de-escalation as well as both internal and external reviews of any instance of use-of-force involving a person with psychosocial disabilities.

In the city of Austin’s September 2018 audit on Austin Police’s response to mental health-related incidents, the auditor found that out of the 15 largest cities in the U.S. and Seattle, Austin had the highest per-capita rate of people killed by police responding to mental health calls.

The audit did say, “APD management noted that Austin may have more people with mental health-related issues than other cities. We could not find data specific to the number of people with mental illness living in Austin as compared to other cities.”

This new report looks at the 2018 audit and then compares the findings to a variety of international and human rights laws. The authors note that the city of Austin has recognized international human rights standards before, for example, in 2017 the council adopted a resolution supporting an effort to eliminate discrimination against women based on a framework approved by the United Nations General Assembly.

“This report explains that the rate with which people are injured and killed because friends and family have sought help for someone during a mental health crisis is a human rights catastrophe,” the report reads.

The report also notes that 2016 findings from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights claim that when dealing with people with psychosocial disabilities, that without adequate training, police officers rely on “negative stereotypes to guide their interactions. 

Attorney Brian McGiverin of the Austin Law Center helped lead this research. He’s been practicing law for 10 years and has worked on the issue of police use-of-force and mental health through that entire time.

McGiverin has also represented several people who have sued Austin Police for excessive use of force, including one client he began representing as recently as this summer. But McGiverin maintains he doesn’t stand to gain a dollar for having done this report.

“The whole goal of civil rights work, if you do it the right way, is to put yourself out of business,” he explained.

“What we can’t lose sight of is it’s a problem that is going to require a longer-term solution than one policy choice or one budget cycle,” he said. “Beyond that, it’s also important that officers receive more training on mental health conditions in general, and [Austin Police] Chief Manley — to his credit — has committed to some.”

McGiverin added of this new report, “although it focuses on instances of lethal force, I think the need extends to other instances of violence as well.”

Austin Police response

Austin Police Department sent KXAN a statement noting that the first line of the philosophy of the Austin Police Department says, “The protection of life is the primary core value and guiding principle of the Austin Police Department.”

The statement continues:

“This philosophy is reflected in APD’s leadership, training, and policies.  All APD officers are trained and taught, and it is the stated philosophy of the department, that the use of deadly force will be used as a last resort, only after other reasonable alternatives have failed or been determined to be impractical. 

APD training, including training on interactions with people experiencing mental health crises, is well regarded and has been developed in conjunction with outside experts. 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. Moreover, APD has long trained its officers in de-escalation techniques, but has also adopted a policy requiring the use of such techniques whenever reasonable. 

Finally, APD takes its responsibility to improve seriously. It commissioned the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute (MMHPI) to review its training and practices with respect to its responses to mental health incidents. The comprehensive MMHPI report recognizes APD’s many strengths, as well recent improvements, while also making several recommendations. Since the report was issued in May, 2019, APD has been working  to implement those recommendations to advance its philosophy and better serve the entire Austin community. “

Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday responded to Tuesday’s report as well, telling KXAN, “We have thousands and thousands of calls a year that we deal with mental health, I think we do a really good job.”

“You just cant help it when someone points a gun on you or charges you with a knife, there’s no other way around that you gotta use [force],” he added.

“I stand by our officers, it’s easy to second guess and be the Monday-morning quarterback, but when you’re dealing with these split-second decisions, you have to side with the officers because they are the ones on the scene having to make these split-second decisions,” Casaday said.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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