League City’s newest chief of police is Cliff Woitena after he was sworn into office last week, and under his guidance, the police department is making plans for kickstarting a mental health unit to address an uptick in mental health calls.
“By the end of 2022, we realized that our officers were committing someone to a mental health facility almost every day,” Woitena said. “In many cases, we found that we had repeat mental health consumers.”
The police department received 159 mental health calls in 2022, and that increase motivated the department to get serious about its plan for responding to mental crisis calls, despite talks being up in the air for years.
Early discussions of a mental health unit were based on anecdotal evidence, Woitena said.
“The agency decided to develop a mechanism to better track our mental health-related calls,” he said. “Our goal was to capture as much empirical data as possible to assist in the development of a realistic approach to this issue.”
Armed with data on increased mental health calls, the department decided to explore the development of a proactive mental health team, he said.
The goal is to build a unit that would have primary responding officers to assist citizens in mental crises, Woitena said. Those officers will receive more advanced mental health training, dress in non-traditional uniforms, and operate out of unmarked police cars.
“Our hope is to humanize our response to these types of calls and remove some of the anxiety that can be associated with a more traditional police response,” he said. “We are also exploring the possibilities of a multi-disciplinary response that would couple our police officers with a medical professional and mental health counselor. This approach would provide an array of services and resolution strategies at each and every call.”
And while an uptick in mental health-related calls is not uncommon, some police departments around Texas have struggled to keep up, burdened by limited resources. Last year, Texas Governor Greg Abbott vowed to invest $25 billion in mental health care spending in response to the Robb Elementary School shooting that left 19 children and two adults dead.
In Houston, calls to the police department’s Crisis Intervention Team are going up every year, according to a 2020 annual report. The division received 45,855 calls in 2020, which was around 5,000 more than the prior year.
Counselors on Houston’s crisis call diversion team also connect callers with additional resources after attempts to de-escalate a situation, Wayne Young, Harris Center CEO told Houston Public Media last year.
The League City Police Department applied for $218,000 of funding for the unit in April, through Community Oriented Police Services.
“These funds were requested to assist with the purchase of our initial vehicles, computers, uniforms and training for our officers. We also intend to seek state-level funding once some of those opportunities present themselves.”
And since funding is not guaranteed, the police department has increased its mental health training throughout its patrol division. The police department currently has approximately 20 certified mental health officers in the agency.
“We aspire to train all of our uniformed personnel to become certified mental health officers to increase our abilities to better handle these types of calls,” Woitena said.
The League City council unanimously approved appointing Woitena as chief on Sept. 12. He recently served the department as Assistant Chief of Police and Interim Chief after the retirement of former Police Chief Gary Ratliff in June.