An extreme-left coalition, allied with the county’s top Democrat, is pushing for the City of Dallas to move taxpayer funds from police to mental health professionals, letting them be the first responders to most mental health calls. But two activist mothers of special-needs children dispute this as an appropriate plan, arguing that police with appropriate training handle these situations better.

“I don’t see how we can sit back and say our public schools are failing, so they need more money, [but] our police officers aren’t responding appropriately, [so they] take money away and give it to agencies that really, truly are failing and are underwater with their caseload,” said Jackie Schlegel, executive director of Texans for Vaccine Choice. “I think removing our law enforcement would be detrimental to all.”

After the tragic death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the Democrat activist “Dallas Police Oversight Coalition” began a series of protests in Dallas that became riots. At the request of Democrat County Judge Clay Jenkins, the coalition submitted a list of demands to the city council and county commissioners. Only a few of these demands would provide greater police accountability and transparency.

One idea the coalition and Democrat activists nationwide have been pushing is taking taxpayer funds from police and creating “a program that assigns teams of mental health professionals or, as appropriate, other professionals in counseling and social work as first responders to mental health calls unless a firearm is involved outside of the police department.”

Dallas Councilman Adam Bazaldua has been pushing for this, under the label of “Reimagining Public Safety.” But would this proposal provide greater police accountability and transparency?

“Put simply, it wouldn’t,” said Derek Cohen, director of Texas Public Policy Foundation’s criminal justice reform campaign Right On Crime. “Those are two completely different things. While it is important that police are properly trained in de-escalation and dealing with people in mental health crisis, they are not backend service providers. Even if everyone were to receive MH (mental health) treatment, that doesn’t obviate the need for front-end enforcement.”

It’s questionable if cutting police funding is appropriate as crime continues to rise in Dallas. In an interview, Mayor Eric Johnson said, “I don’t want to see us go in the wrong direction on public safety. I want to see us continue to invest in public safety the way we committed to do last year.”

Johnson also doesn’t seem keen for the city to tackle mental health issues. “We don’t do mental health,” he said, adding, “That is the county’s responsibility. We can’t be all things to all people.”

This summer, the coalition has pushed their idea in meetings held with local officials. But are government mental health teams the right first responders for mental health calls?

“The first thing that comes to my mind is: Have any of these people actually experienced MHMR (Mental Health Mental Retardation)?” Schlegel asks, naming the agency in every Texas county tasked with providing these services. “It’s a complete nightmare.”

Schlegel says the agencies put in place for these purposes are not efficient or quick. “You talk to the majority of families who have children with special needs or mental health issues … and they’re not going to give you rave reviews of these community agencies, these community programs.”

Krista McIntire, director of Family Rights Advocacy, agrees.

“For me, the red flags when we’re talking about more mental health needs, more mental health services, more government oversight … I feel like we’re also crossing a fine line of over-diagnosing people with too much intervention.”

Both of these activist leaders have a special-needs child. Schlegel’s is 19 years old with multiple disabilities and diagnoses. The difference in her experiences with government mental health professionals and the police is like night and day.

“The police were there within minutes. The officers were trained in de-escalation,” she recalled. “They were trained to talk to the family, to get as much information from the family as possible in how to engage my daughter, [in] what typically works.”

McIntire explained this is exactly how these situations should be handled.

“I’ve dealt with a lot of police officers who do exactly what I just said: When there’s a child with mental health needs, they come in, they assess the situation, they make sure that first, everybody is safe and calm. And then they reach out and say, ‘Mom, Dad, how can we help? What’s going on?’ And then they leave, and they’re done.”

In contrast, what happens when you call the government mental health professionals? In Schlegel’s experience, it’s not pretty.

“If you happen to get through to a receptionist or someone who is taking the call, you would either get dropped or they would say somebody from the emergency response will get back to you—within 24 hours,” she said. “Nobody ever came within 24 hours.”

What’s worse is what happened when they actually showed up.

“They showed up with their agenda,” she recalled. “Their agenda was to get [my daughter] to a psych ward. Their agenda was to label this a mental health disturbance. They really didn’t care what I said or what I wanted for my daughter.”

“By the grace of God, I had police officers there that had my back and said, ‘What do you want to do?’ And I said, ‘She’s sick, she needs to go to a hospital.’ And they said, ‘Alright, let’s get her there.’”

What would have happened had mental health professionals had their way?

“[My daughter] would’ve been doped up for 30 days. And she would’ve ended up in a state-supported living center,” Schlegel said.

“The government answer to mental health services is quite often medication,” McIntire said. She adds that’s appropriate if parents and physicians both agree that medication is helping. “But when we step in as social workers, and we say, ‘I’m the social worker, and I believe you need to have your child on Adderall,’ we’re crossing a boundary.”

What, then, is the solution local elected officials should seek for mental health situations? For both McIntire and Schlegel, it’s not more funding to government mental health programs, but better training for police and ensuring families are involved in making decisions.

“The way [officials] could help out is by educating police officers,” McIntire says. “Lots of times, I’ve dealt with families under [Child Protective Services] investigation, and they were reported by a police officer who came out to the house due to an incident or a child … who has autism.”

“If the police would stop right there—if they had the education to understand a little bit more about mental health and a little bit more about the disability world—they wouldn’t feel this need to call CPS.”

Schlegel wholeheartedly agrees, praising the work of Tarrant County’s district attorney on this. “Getting the training for the police officers to engage these individuals in the community—it’s working,” she said. “It is absolutely working.”

But how should parents respond when cops aren’t handling a mental health call appropriately? Schlegel gives the same advice she gives her teenage son:

“You make eye contact. You are respectful. You do your part to minimize any type of confrontation. And if you’re treated inappropriately, we will handle that situation appropriately by going to the right authorities.”

Friday, August 8, is when Dallas’ city staff is expected to unveil their proposed budget for the city council to consider. Concerned citizens are encouraged to contact city council.

Robert Montoya

Born in Houston, Robert Montoya is an investigative reporter for Texas Scorecard. He believes transparency is the obligation of government.