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Dallas police brought Shamond Lewis to jail rather than a mental health facility. It could have made the difference between life and death.

For Sophia Lewis, the decision to take her mentally ill son to jail instead of a hospital was the difference between life and death.

Sophia said Shamond was suffering from a psychotic “break,” a consequence of his schizophrenia, at the time of his arrest.

Law enforcement, government officials, and mental health experts are aware of the need for a specialized way to treat people with serious conditions. The City of Dallas, Parkland Health, and other organizations have added more crisis response teams — teams deployed to calls with a clear behavioral health issue.

Yet Shamond’s situation, because of his offense, may not be squarely within the mandate of those crisis teams, despite his health history.

And despite recent advances, the criminal justice system struggles with how to deal with the mentally ill, and sometimes that leads to tragic results.

“If someone was having a heart attack, if they were having a stroke, if they were bleeding because they’d been shot or stabbed — they wouldn’t start by taking them to the local county jail,” said Texas A&M Law Professor Cynthia Alkon. “They’d start at the emergency room.”

The scene

Sophia Lewis was on her way to work in late September when she got a call from one of her son’s neighbors. Shamond lived on his own in East Dallas, off St. Francis Avenue near I-30.

As Sophia recalled, the neighbor thought Shamond was having one of his episodes and said, “’If you could get over here, they have him [in] handcuffs.’”

She rushed to the scene. Upon seeing her 24-year-old son, she recognized symptoms of a psychotic break.

“The only layman terms I can say is like a deer in headlights,” she said. “He just looked, like, spaced out.”

According to an incident report filed by a Dallas Police Department officer, Shamond had punched a man that morning, then choked him before the victim pushed him off. Shamond then held a knife over his head and threatened the man with it. The man fled, called 911, and waived down a nearby sheriff’s officer. The report said there were no injuries, and that the victim declined medical attention.

The report also said Shamond was detained on the curb when Dallas police arrived. He’d been detained by a deputy with the Dallas County Sheriff’s Office who was at the scene first.

Sophia said she talked to a deputy with the Dallas County Sheriff’s Office. She explained to him that that very day, the 22nd, was the birthday of her late mother. Shamond recently reminded his mother the date was approaching, and Sophia thought it might have triggered his break.

“I was very redundant about telling them that he does have a documented mental illness,” she said. “I was there with law enforcement. I was very redundant about that.”

Instead of taking Shamond to a hospital for treatment, DPD took him to the Dallas County Jail. A report from the sheriff’s department said he became unresponsive after corrections staff restrained him and changed his clothes. Eventually he was transferred to Parkland Hospital, where he later died.

Dallas police arrested Shamond near the East Dallas Government Center on St. Francis Avenue.

Felony versus misdemeanor

Texas’ criminal procedure code says law enforcement “shall make a good-faith effort to divert” a person suffering a mental health crisis into a medical facility. That order, however, only applies to nonviolent misdemeanors.

A relevant Dallas Police Department policy also makes a distinction between misdemeanor and felony offenses when it comes to mental health diversion. Here is an excerpt from the department’s Patrol Standard Operating Procedure obtained by KERA:

“If the person has committed an offense other than a class C misdemeanor, the mentally ill/emotionally disturbed person is ineligible for an APOWW [Apprehension By Peace Officer Without Warrant] and should be arrested for the criminal offense. Mentally ill/emotionally disturbed persons have access to mental health services at Lew Sterrett Justice Center.”

Lew Sterrett Justice Center refers to the Dallas County Jail.

The “APOWW” process is an emergency detention, not an arrest. It lets an officer detain a mentally ill person without a warrant if the officer believes the person is a risk to himself or others. Law enforcement must then immediately transfer the person to a mental health facility and avoid jail.

But as the Dallas Police policy indicates, officers are instructed that felony offenders are not eligible for this kind of detention.

A person with a life-threatening physical injury, however, will generally get taken to a hospital for emergency care. That happens even if the person is under arrest for a felony offense.

“Why don’t we, and shouldn’t we, look at these kinds of health crises that are mental health crises in the same way that we look at physical health crises?” Alkon said.

Diverting to mental health care

Dallas Police Chief Eddie Garcia speaks at a roundtable discussion at a fire station in Dallas.

Keren Carrión

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KERA News

Dallas Police Chief Eddie Garcia.

The Dallas Police Department, Parkland Hospital, and other organizations have partnered since 2018 on the RIGHT Care program, which deploys a social worker, police officer, and paramedic to behavioral health emergencies in the city. The program recently added an overnight shift and is on track to surpass 2021’s total of 9,531 interventions.

Yet about 40% of behavioral health calls are still handled by patrol officers, a RIGHT Care representative said. Those officers can call the RIGHT Care team for assistance, although people accused of felonies, like Shamond Lewis, still go to jail.

Chad Anderson with North Texas Behavioral Health Authority said state guidance for law enforcement on mental health issues tries to “balance community safety with that need for treatment.”

He said people are supposed to get assessed when booked into a county jail — screenings that are “more developed and more nuanced” than a suicide watch. Jail staff will also be notified if the person has been involved in the behavioral health system. Jail staff can then notify jail health staff.

It’s unclear which of these processes happened with Shamond Lewis in September, although his custodial death report said he was put on suicide precaution.

The Dallas County Sheriff’s Department, which runs the jail, did not respond to emails seeking an interview.

Alkon with Texas A&M said that if police officers routinely take the mentally ill to jail rather than a health care setting, that should change.

“This is not a safe move by any stretch of the imagination for the person who’s being arrested,” Alkon said. “We’ve had case after case after case in county jail after county jail after county jail of people who have died in custody.”

Got a tip? Email Bret Jaspers at bjaspers@kera.org. You can follow Bret on Twitter @bretjaspers.

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