HPD’s Homeless Outreach Team recognized as outstanding example of community policing and trainers of other PDs

Tom Kennedy

HPD’s innovative and trend-setting Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) continues to take a national leadership role in the policing practices used to deal with a growing number of homeless people on the streets.

Set to start the New Year by scheduling training sessions for officers from both NYPD and LAPD, the team is aglow from its having earned national recognition from the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

In October the IACP named the HOT team as a finalist for the Cisco 2015 Community Policing Award. Although NYPD eventually earned the top honor, the HPD team earned “the silver medal.”

More importantly, the recognition signified HPD’s distinction of establishing the nation’s first Mental Health Division to handle the never-ending police involvement with the mentally ill, homeless and drug abuse victims.

The Department’s pioneering approach has resulted in training officers from other departments from throughout the nation.

Capt. Wendy Baimbridge, who heads up the Mental Health Division, said the award’s criteria stresses the collaborative approach to addressing the homeless issue, “using community policing strategies.”

The award is given to agencies recognized for exceptional community policing. Their innovative practices, partnerships and problem solving within the community demonstrated the excellence of the team and resulted in this award.

Baimbridge pointed out that the Cisco-sponsored award was just one presented in 2015 to honor ongoing programs carried out on a daily basis by officers in the division.

The Homeless Outreach Team hit the ground running when it was created about five years ago.

There is no question that this team of deeply committed officers gets results, sometimes very promptly.

HPOU 1st Vice President Doug Griffith said, “A woman was trying to find her son who was mentally ill and was last known to be on the streets of Houston. I called Jaime Giraldo and he and the team found this guy within two days!

“They got him reunited with his family. They’re incredible!”

Giraldo serves on a team headed by Sgt. Steve Wick. The other officers on the team are Janice Terry, Colin Mansfield and Sheldon Theragood.

Of course, there are also the collaborators, case workers from the Harris Center for Mental Health and IDD (formerly Harris County MHMRA). Those are case workers headed by Tony Pastel and including Deirdre Kimble-Charles, Ashley Mullins and Cami West-Puentes.

Sgt. Wick has headed the HOT team since its inception, supervising procedural changes along the way that have resulted in dramatic increases in service records.

“HPD is the only city in country with a Mental Health Division,” Wick said, “specifically designed for the mental ill and homeless and the drug addicted – usually the same person.”

Wick and Giraldo have seen significant increases in all aspects of the categories in the HOT team’s annual report. Consumer contacts, for instance, went up from 2,416 last year to 3,496 through the first 11 months of 2016.

Other comparisons, this year to this year (through November) are:

  • Referrals – 4,537 to 11.959
  • Homeless to Housing – 194 to 268

The last statistic ranks as the most important. “This means that we took 268 people off the streets and found them homes,” Giraldo explained. “We were shooting for 300 and believe that number will go up even more in the New Year.”

Capt. Baimbridge said, “Responding to individuals in serious mental health crises continues to be a complex and challenging issue facing law enforcement today.

“These issues are complex because we are interacting with individuals with severe behavioral health problems and challenging because of a lack of mental health resources.

“The Houston Police Department, collaborating with community mental health professionals and advocates, is allocating unprecedented manpower and resources to ensure Houston officers respond as professionally, humanely, and safely as possible to individuals in serious mental health crises.

“As a result, Houston has become the leading law enforcement agency in the State of Texas and one of the national leaders in this effort.

“Houston has provided crisis intervention training to thousands of law enforcement and behavioral health professionals across Texas and the nation, and was one of six police departments nationally selected by the United States Council of State

Governments as a learning site for specialized programs for responding to the mentally ill.

“Houston has a multifaceted response strategy for responding to individuals with behavioral health problems that includes five programs that are outlined in this annual report.

“Although we are leading in this specialized area of law enforcement, we continue to work diligently with our community partners to improve our response by developing innovative model policing strategies for the City of Houston.”

In the division’s annual report, Police Chief Charles “Chuck” McClelland echoed the feelings he has expressed about the HOT team over the recent years. “I’m very, very proud of all the officers that serve on the HOT team. They are very dedicated and they are very passionate about this issue.

“When you are doing non-traditional policing and providing a service to the community that many law enforcement agencies don’t engage in, you must have employees who are very passionate and care about the issue.”