More of Harris County’s 911 calls will be diverted to a mental health crisis team instead of law enforcement officers after a year-long pilot program in a handful of neighborhoods handled thousands of non-violent incidents.
Since March 2022, the county’s Holistic Assistance Response Team, or HART, program has dispatched mental health and social work professionals instead of law enforcement to some types of emergency calls. In the first year, it diverted 2,265 calls from law enforcement responses in the Cypress Station area in north Harris County.
The project is a collaboration between the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and Harris County Public Health to free up law enforcement to focus on violent crime, reduce hospitalizations in the county’s safety net hospital system and increase enrollment in physical and mental health treatment plans.
Harris County Commissioners Court voted May 16 to broaden the program from mostly daytime hours to a round-the-clock and expand it into Precinct 4 at an additional cost of $2.9 million.
In the program’s first year, the top three call types HART members responded to involved welfare checks, suspicious persons and mental health calls.
The teams work with homeless residents, people suffering from mental illness and, in some cases, overwhelmed and struggling parents, said Victoria Moreau, a HART program field training officer and crisis intervention specialist.
Now, the program is expanding to Harris County Sheriff’s Office District IV, a 206-mile area with more than 450,000 residents located mostly within Commissioner Lesley Briones’ Precinct 4.
The goal for fiscal 2024 is to respond to 7,500 calls in District IV, or roughly one-third of the total calls in that area last year that would have been eligible for HART.
“HART makes our community safer by connecting those in crisis with treatment and by freeing up law enforcement officers to focus on violent crime. It is a win-win,” Briones said in a statement.
The county estimates the program will be operating in the expanded area by September, initially hiring two teams and working up to six.
See here for some background, and I encourage you to read their FA page about the program. The point is that not every 911 call requires an armed law enforcement officer. By diverting those calls to a team that is better equipped to handle them, you can get better outcomes and hopefully reduce those calls in the future because you’re addressing root causes and not just dealing with the immediate situation. Plus, your sheriff’s deputies can now spend more time and effort dealing with crime, which is what you want them doing. It’s a win-win, and it’s been used in multiple jurisdictions around the state and the rest of the country. And, as a reminder that elections matter, it’s allowed to work here because we have a majority on Commissioners Court that supports it. The losing candidate for County Judge opposed this program.