FEATURE: In San Antonio, Anthony Hill Would’ve Been Helped, Not Shot
This article is the first in a two-part series. Atlanta Progressive News traveled to San Antonio, Texas, in order to learn about the social services model they employ in dealing with mentally ill citizens.
(APN) SAN ANTONIO, Texas — When San Antonio, Texas, police officer Ernie Stevens heard about the police shooting of Anthony Hill in DeKalb County, Georgia, two words were burning in his brain: excited delirium.
Hill was a 27-year-old Air Force veteran and musician who described himself as bipolar on his social media accounts. He was also a Black man in a nation that criminalizes Black men.
On Monday March 09, 2015, Hill apparently suffered a mental health crisis. According to his neighbors at an apartment complex in unincorporated DeKalb, the young man was naked, crawling around, and speaking unintelligibly when workers in the rental office called the police for help.
DeKalb County police officer Robert Olsen responded to the call. But instead of coming to Hill’s aid, Olsen fired his gun as Hill approached him, slaying the sick man.
Excited delirium, Stevens says, is what most likely was afflicting Hill. He’s dealt with a lot of people in such a condition.
“They get hot and their body starts fighting against itself, trying to cool down. That’s why they take off their clothes,” Stephens says.
“Whenever I get a call about someone running around naked, I get paramedics on the scene because I know it’s not a criminal situation, it’s a medical emergency.”
Stephens is one of the founding members of San Antonio Police Department’s Mental Health Unit.
The unit is one facet of a complex collaboration across many local government agencies and partner organizations that, over the past fourteen years, has drastically changed how the city treats people who suffer from mental illness, drug addiction, and homelessness.
The morning after Hill was shot near Atlanta, Stevens showed up for work in San Antonio wearing his usual outfit: blue jeans and a bright blue polo-style shirt made of performance fabric.
He doesn’t wear a police uniform because this way, “people have an easier time trusting you.”
Lunch is more expensive now, but otherwise he doesn’t miss the uniform. The gun tucked into his waistband is barely noticeable under his shirt.
This reporter climbed into an unmarked police SUV with Stevens, and we started cruising around.
Stevens was jovial and energetic, bouncing from giving a history lesson on how the
Mental Health Unit formed, to joking about his secret love for the Little House on the Prairie TV series, which he watches with his nine-year-old daughter.
A laptop over the console lists emergency calls as dispatchers post them. Stevens scans the list for cases that may involve a mental health crisis.
“My job is to keep people out of jail and get them help,” Stevens says. “I think that’s what police work should be.”
That wasn’t always Stevens’s attitude.
Back in 2005, he’d been a cop for 14 years and says he had an approach characteristic of most police: “I was a guy who was going to run fast and kick your door down.”
At the time, he and his partner were working grueling night shifts. His partner saw an opportunity to participate in Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) and signed them up so they could get a week of daytime hours.
When Stevens learned the training would equip him to help people experiencing mental health problems, he was less than enthusiastic. He attended the classes grudgingly.
Then, on the second-to-last day, a civilian woman paid the class a visit.
“She told us she was there as a member of the community, and as a mother with a schizophrenic son,” Stevens recounts.
“She said, ‘If you talk about police, politics, or religion with my son, he flies off the handle and wants to fight. I know that one day, one of you officers will have to come to my house and shoot and kill my son.’”
That, Stevens says, was when he reached a turning point.
“The fact that she was resigned to this horrible thing, I just thought, ‘it doesn’t have to be this way.’”
At that point, the SAPD had been offering CIT training for four years, as part of a jail diversion program initiated by the Center for Health Care Services (CHCS), the mental health authority for Bexar County, where San Antonio is located.
The training was not mandatory and the department did not have a unit devoted to handling mental health cases.
Stevens says he began advocating for the creation of a mental health unit. The next year, an SAPD officer fatally shot a schizophrenic man, sparking public outrage and furthering the argument for a special unit.
At the same time, CHCS was ramping up its jail diversion model; in 2008 it opened The Restoration Center, a one-stop shop for myriad mental health and substance abuse treatment programs, including a Crisis Care wing where police could bring mentally unstable people instead of booking them.
By the end of 2008, then-Chief William McManus established the SAPD’s first Mental Health Unit. It was composed of two officers: Stevens and his partner.
They began a comprehensive training regimen. Together with CHCS clinicians, Stevens and his partner used role play to guide SAPD officers through responding to suicidality, depression, and psychosis, among other conditions.
Now the unit has grown to include six officers and every SAPD officer, regardless of their department, is required to undergo forty hours of mental health training.
Stevens and CHCS also train police officers from other law enforcement agencies, as well as dispatchers, paramedics, school police, jail guards, and magistrate detention guards.
The most important thing he teaches is “active listening,” he said. It helps in all aspects of police work, not just mental health cases, and has even had an effect on officers’ personal lives.
“We have cookouts and stuff and I’ve had officers’ wives come up to me and say, ‘Are you the one that changed my husband? He took your class and he listens now,’” Stevens said.
“That’s us,” he says.
We arrive at an apartment complex on the city’s north side. The caller is the mother of a twelve year-old whose friend has threatened self-harm.
[Atlanta Progressive News signed paperwork with the SAPD, allowing the organization to participate in the ride-along. SAPD provided APN with a second document stating that APN had such permission, in case anyone questioned the reporter’s presence. No one did.]
Paramedics from the fire department had already arrived and were in the parking lot with the mother and daughter.
Together we go to a bottom-floor apartment, where Alegra [not her real name], a slender tween in a Walking Dead t-shirt and volleyball shorts, answered the door.
“Are you Alegra?” Stevens asked with a tone of friendly concern.
She nodded and stood aside to let us in. Stevens asked the other girl and her mother to stay outside.
Stevens and the paramedics gently asked Alegra questions while taking her blood pressure and checking her for signs of overdose. She said she hadn’t taken anything, and the medics confirmed this, then packed up to leave.
But Stevens’s work was far from over. He asked about her diet, her sleep, what medications she’s prescribed, and her feelings.
Alegra responded that she’s been sad for about a year. She said she was especially sad today because the girl whose mother called the police, is her girlfriend, and they are breaking up.
Stevens called Alegra’s mom at the nearby restaurant where she’s working, then went outside to talk to the girlfriend and send her home.
While we waited for Alegra’s mom to arrive, Stevens talked with her about the cuts on her ankles and wrists.
““The pain isn’t going to go away. It’s going to get worse and you’re going to cut a little deeper every time,” he told her.
“Do you want to get help?” he asked. Alegra said she does.
When Alegra’s mom walked in, Stevens sat with her in the small dining area of the apartment. He invited Alegra to participate in the conversation.
Stevens laid out a list of options for seeking mental health treatment and explained each one in calm detail.
Together they decided that Alegra will go to a psychiatric treatment center with a program for adolescent girls, where she’ll be assessed and possibly kept for a 24-hour “observation period.”
“Would you be afraid if they decided to admit you?” Stevens asked Alegra.
“Sort of,” she replied.
“What would you be scared of?”
“Being tied down.”
“Okay, let’s dispel that right now,” Stevens said. He went on to describe how the center is more like a dorm than a hospital. There are basketball and volleyball courts, even a food court.
Alegra rode in Stevens’s car and her mother followed. Stevens stayed with the family until Alegra was checked in. By the time we leave, it had been about two hours since we first responded to the call.
“No patrol officer would have sat down to talk to mom the way we did,” Stevens said. “They would try to pawn her off on somebody and get back on patrol because those calls are stacking up.”
And that’s the gist of a mental health officer’s work: de-escalating crises and taking the time to get people to a safe environment.
Alegra was cooperative and not very agitated. But Stevens and the other officers in his unit regularly respond to people who are more highly distressed, like Anthony Hill on the day he was killed.
In the six-plus years since the unit’s inception, there’s only been one case in which an SAPD mental health officer used force. It happened recently, when a new recruit tackled a woman who was trying to flee from a hospital. The woman’s cheek was cut, but otherwise she was all right.
The collaboration between CHCS and SAPD diverts about 2,300 people from jails and emergency rooms per month, according to CHCS.
Still, there’s room for improvement for sure.
As we left the treatment center, Stevens mentioned that Alegra’s girlfriend had told him that Alegra’s depression stemmed from the fact that Alegra’s mother did not accept her daughter’s sexual orientation.
Why didn’t he ask Alegra about this?
“I’m a Christian. I read the Bible a lot. Anything I would have said to her about that would have challenged her,” Stevens said.
It was clear from the episode with Alegra that the SAPD would benefit from anti-oppression training that specifically addresses equal rights in the context of homophobia.
SAPD’s Mental Health Unit represents one small but significant step toward humanizing the relationships between police and the people they claim to serve.
SAPD may be far from perfect, but it’s fair to say that if an officer with Stevens’s training had responded to the call from the Chamblee Heights Apartments, there’s a good chance Anthony Hill would still be alive.
In part two of this series, APN will explore what it would take for Atlanta-area law enforcement agencies to develop a similar model.