University of Texas police launch crisis intervention team for mental health calls

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The University of Texas Police Department now has a specialized unit designed to take a low-anxiety approach to mental health calls.

The University Crisis Intervention Team (UCIT) is made up of four officers who listen to calls every day and respond to mental health crises.

Out of the thousands of calls coming through to UT police, it’s the mental health ones that officers say they receive most.

“Nowadays, students are very overwhelmed with schoolwork, and they don’t really know where to get help from,” said UT officer Frank Pontillo. 

These situations can be intense. But the new crisis intervention team says it doesn’t have to be.

“We are going to be in a regular blue polo shirt, identified as UT police on the back, with our pistol and handcuffs hidden,” Pontillo said. 

Although UT said all officers are or will be trained for mental health response, this new team will have even more specialized training. 

“Our UCIT officers will specifically be receiving training in de escalation,” said Lt. Samantha Stanford with UTPD. They’ll be going through our crisis negotiation course, mental health, first-aid, among other continuous training.”

According to UTPD, mental health calls make up the majority of its calls. In 2019, UTPD said there were 493 calls with a mental health element. Those calls included voluntary commitments, police officer emergency detentions (not hospital), suspicious activity, suspicious person, disturbances, welfare concerns and assaults with a mental health element.  

In 2020, there were 368 mental health calls through mid November. The calls continue to increase, according to police.

“We know that there are more,” Campus Safety Communications Director Noelle Newton said. “For instance, we are called into assist with non-UT affiliated subjects at Dell Seton Medical Center as that is in our jurisdiction. We now have built a way to accurately track the data in our system.”

Police are hopeful this will help people who truly need it.

“Something that we’re also focused on, is trying to divert someone from the criminal justice system when appropriate, in getting them that mental health treatment that they might need,” Stanford said. 

Pontillo said he feels he can truly make a difference in this new role. 

“I really care about the community, I care about these students,” Pontillo said. 

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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