Task force talks de-escalation, intervention


Editor’s note: This is the first of two stories about dealing with potentially dangerous situations involving persons suffering from mental health issues.


With the deaths of 17 students in a Florida mass shooting fresh on everyone’s minds, the Liberty Hill Community Critical Incident Task Force met Feb. 15 to learn more about protecting this community from a similar tragedy.

The meeting, which focused on de-escalation and intervention, was the second for the task force, the first coming shortly after the mass shooting in Sutherland Springs.

“This (task force) did stem from the shootings at the church near San Antonio, but this was in the making some time before that,” said Liberty Hill Police Chief Maverick Campbell. “That incident kind of triggered it to soft targets such as churches and locations where there are a lot of people present in public.”

The second meeting began with the cloud of the Florida attack hanging over, and everyone looking for answers in the event of a similar situation here.

While the first thought on people’s minds was how to deal with an armed attacker, Annie Burwell, with the Williamson County Mobile Outreach Team (MOT), said there is much more to the mental health side of the issue than an armed attack.

“If you see something, say something,” Burwell said. “People in Florida are saying people knew, but they didn’t report it. Why is that?”

She said as the community asks questions about how to remain safe, it should also ask how to provide mental health services to those in need.

“What do we do here in Liberty Hill to keep the community safe?” she asked. “Part of that is figuring out who needs help, support and structure, and police or MOT involvement.”

School violence has always been around, Burwell said, but added we’re much more aware of it through the media today and it has become more deadly.

“With assault rifles and things like that it has become a much more deadly problem,” she said. “The killings happen much faster and at a higher rate.”

Mass-casualty attacks are often thought of in terms of terrorism, but Campbell sees what might occur locally differently.

“The typical threat we are going to address is something like someone having a really bad day, someone who went through a relationship issue and showed up at church and makes a bad decision,” he said. “There is a mental health component to these shootings or stabbings or mass casualty incidents. I think with our training today, by having Williamson County and their mobile unit come out and talk about some of that stuff, this is a great start in learning how to deal with it.”

With safety at schools and churches on everyone’s mind, Burwell said communities are just coming to terms with threats at these traditionally safe places.

“We’re looking at systems that have been really porous,” she said. “Talking about schools and churches, those are systems that have been very safe places in the community, especially small towns. As Americans, we have always felt like those were two very safe places.”

In the case of Liberty Hill’s task force, Campbell didn’t want to limit awareness to churches and schools, but wanted to make sure every part of the community was included.

“We as a community need to come together and learn those things like common indicators and things like that regarding individuals who could pose a threat,” he said. “We wanted to include everybody in the community and we wanted to make it a community-wide task force. We wanted to get all soft targets involved, so we reached out to local business owners, the local churches of course, the schools, and the city.”

As was the case with Nikolas Cruz in Florida, after the fact, many who knew him said they had seen signs of trouble.

“All too often we see in these news interviews, with relatives and friends of the attacker, people say, ‘Something wasn’t right there. I noticed something different on social media,’” Campbell said. “What we’ve gotten away from is the see something, say something mentality. When the community is aware, and attends training like this, where indicators are shared and what to do in those situations with an agitated customer in a business or agitated parishioner in a church, people will know what to look for.”

Burwell spent time discussing how to deal with and help those who show signs of mental health problems long before the situation becomes deadly. What can church members or teachers or business owners do when someone shows signs of mental illness?

“I’m not saying he is shooting anyone or pulling a knife, we’re not even talking about that,” she said. “We’re talking about them acting oddly and bizarrely.”

One of the most common mental illnesses people come into contact with is schizophrenia. Key symptoms of schizophrenia include paranoia and hallucinations, where those suffering from it have delusions, which are often associated with religion.

“They look pretty normal, look fine, but their brain is just not working and it is creating hallucinations, delusions and paranoia and terrible thoughts and some really odd behaviors,” Burwell said. “A lot of those delusions are around religious beliefs. They often have what we call delusions of grandeur.”

The danger and conflict arise when someone threatens or challenges that belief.

Questions like whether to try to remove someone from the premises, how to communicate with them and whether or not to call the police should all be discussed and planned out as part of every organization’s response plan, even in a non-lethal scenario.

“Can you really go wrong by calling 911?” she asked. “You certainly want to treat this person with respect and remember that they’re ill, but if you have any inkling there may be a tiny bit of danger, you’re going to call the police. You create an emergency response plan, just like you would if you were going to have a tornado drill or whatever.”

Someone should be predesignated to make the 911 call should it be warranted, but the way someone communicates with the individual until officers arrive is important.

“The louder someone gets, the softer we want to get,” Burwell said of talking with the individual. “You use your ears and you’re just going to listen, and be calm. We’re going to treat the person with a lot of respect and kindness and compassion.”

Giving the person space is also important.

“The other thing you are not going to want to do is get really close to the person,” she said. “Usually when people are agitated, they are going to want a bigger bubble of space around them.”

Trying to move the person outside the building can help, hopefully into a place easily seen by arriving officers. And when that 911 call is made, provide as much information as possible.

It is important to remember, though, Texas law is very restrictive on what officers can do in these situations, so assuming they can simply take someone away and keep them away could backfire.

Someone can only be taken into custody if they are an “immediate danger to self or others,” said Burwell.

“What that means is you might have somebody come to your congregation 17 Sundays in a row, but he doesn’t meet criteria for a notice of emergency detention,” she said.

In dealing with people showing signs of mental illness when the situation doesn’t pose any threat, Burwell emphasized that showing compassion and a willingness to help could make all the difference.

“No one is going to come forward and ask for assistance if they think they are going to be shamed,” she said. “There is help available. The thing that gets in the way is stigma.”