AUSTIN (KXAN) — Integral Care said more calls for mental health are flooding into Austin’s 911 call center.
The local mental health authority for Travis County handles mental health-related calls to Austin’s 911 call center.
The city launched a new option for people to connect right away with an on-site mental health professional when they dial 911.
“In just the first week of adding mental health services to the 911 script, we have had the highest call volume for our clinicians on the 911 call center floor,” said an Integral Care spokesperson.
“It’s reading: ‘Are you calling for police, fire, EMS or mental health services?'” said Marisa Aguilar, who manages Integral Care’s Expanded Mobile Crisis Outreach Team at the center.
Aguilar said instead of police or EMS dispatchers fielding a mental health request, it now goes straight to one of Integral Care’s clinicians stationed at the 911 call center.
“We can do our clinical screening and triage and determine if we can take that call, or if it needs to be transferred back to police, if there is a public safety or medical emergency,” Aguilar explained.
She said clinicians may also respond to the scene directly in groups of two for safety. They can also accompany an officer to the scene or de-escalate the crisis over the phone.
Aguilar says right now, clinicians are available every day of the week for limited hours. She says they hope to expand to 24/7 availability.
The move comes after a 2018 city audit found out of the largest 15 cities, APD had the highest per capita rate of fatal police shootings involving people experiencing a mental health crisis.
The money for the 911 mental health initiative comes from moving $11 million out of APD’s budget.
Jarrod Smith said help like that may have saved Mauris DeSilva’s life.
“He was a brilliant scientist, had an amazing career and was struggling with mental health as so many people do,” said Smith, who represents DeSilva’s father.
They say he was having a crisis in 2019, when neighbors called 911.
“He has a knife to his own throat, he’s trying to harm himself, he’s not trying to harm anyone else, he doesn’t seem to be a danger to anyone else, but he’s having some type of mental health episode, and we need someone — they specifically asked for a mental health officer to come to the scene,” said Smith an attorney with Smith & Vinson Law Firm.
In past reports, Austin police said DeSilva was holding a knife to his throat and moved it to his side when officers asked. They say when he stepped toward officers, two of them fired.
DeSilva’s father is now suing the City of Austin and two officers, claiming they used excessive force when fatally shooting DeSilva during his mental breakdown.
One of those officers was also involved in the Mike Ramos shooting, which happened about nine months after the DeSilva shooting. Both cases are pending in the Civil Rights Division of the Travis County District Attorney’s Office.
“We believe this murder could have been prevented by someone that knew what they were doing with mental health crisis,” Smith said.
He said he fully supports the new 911 call center feature and thinks it’s a “step in the right direction” and hopes more help can be provided on-scene.
“Definitely having someone there at the scene with mental health training; I do believe Dr. DeSilva’s death would have been prevented,” Smith said.
KXAN reached out to the City of Austin for a response to the DeSilva family’s lawsuit and have not yet heard back.
Integral Care said so far, they’ve handled about 86% of their mental health calls coming into the 911 center without the need for police response.