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Crime and mental health: Denton County programs deter some from criminal justice system

Some Denton County program directors recognize the criminal justice system isn’t the right place for someone with a mental health problem to get rehabilitated — so their teams are aiming to address the underlying issues to deter them away from the criminal justice system.

The Denton County Judiciary has several specialized treatment courts, and some are meant to divert people from the criminal justice system or help participants break old habits that could get them in trouble. There is a mental health treatment program for adults and one for children, a drug treatment court, veterans treatment court, DWI treatment court and a program for first-time drug offenders.

“Anyone that’s worked in the system for any period of time, whether you’re a prosecutor or you’re a defense attorney or a judge, you come across people that you know have underlying issues [with] the offense. … It may still be an offense, but something else led to it,” said Judge Lee Ann Breading, one of the judges for the adult mental health court. “And trying to get them back on track is the hardest thing to do.”

Breading sees mostly criminal felony cases in her 462nd District Court nowadays. Judge Coby Waddill, who also oversees the adult mental health court, is the judge for County Criminal Court No. 5.

For participants in the mental health courts, the goal is to complete the different phases of probation, counseling and building coping skills so they can get their criminal cases dismissed and record of the offense expunged.

Since its inception in 2015, Waddill said the adult court has had more than 40 graduations, but he said he doesn’t have an exact number of graduates since they get rid of the records once a participant completes the program. He said the program currently has between 22 and 35 participants.

Since its inception in 2016, the juvenile mental health court, called the SOAR program, has had a recidivism rate of 81%, tracking graduates three years out to see if they’ve committed another offense. Prillwitz said this is high because other programs for juveniles have about a 60% recidivism rate.

“[It’s also] to give them tools over the course of that 12 to 18 months that it normally takes to work the program to be able to deal with the new issues that they’re coming to grips with,” Waddill said.

The program is broken up into three phases during that year to year and a half. He said they first get participants stabilized if they’ve been prescribed medications. This means making sure they’re staying on top of their medication, and teaching them to advocate for themselves if their medicine is causing more negative side effects than positive.

Phase 2, active recovery, is where they learn tools to deal with the problems they may have. The third phase, reintegration, employs a type of intensive outpatient counseling in which they put those skills to use and learn how to recognize their triggers.

Usually an attorney advocates for a client to get into the program, but referrals can come from the District Attorney’s Office, the arresting agency or another source, Waddill said. The judges said many participants are young adults.

The SOAR program usually has 10 participants, and the average age is 15 to 16 years old. Judge Kimberly McCary and program director Laura Prillwitz said youth are referred to this program through several means, such as through the Denton County Juvenile Detention Center, a police officer, their school, their family or their attorney. The children who enter the program don’t have to be first-time offenders.

“We want to keep them out of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department,” McCary said. “We don’t want them to go there if there’s any way we can treat them in the community and keep [everyone] safe. We don’t want them going deeper into the system.”

Kimberly McCary

Breading and Waddill stressed that the program, broken down into three phases, isn’t an easy one. It lasts a year or more as participants learn to keep up with any medications they’re on, gain tools to deal with problems and learn reintegration with a counseling group that helps them recognize triggers.

“Eighteen months is not really very long in the whole scheme of things for a lot of these people,” Breading said. “I mean, just getting through the steps is … a major challenge because they have setbacks.”

Participants meet more frequently with a probation officer. Waddill said a normal probation officer can have about 100 people they meet with once a month. In the mental health court and the juvenile program, probation officers meet with participants at least a few times a week, on top of the court sessions twice a month and counseling.

For the adults, the program also requires them to either have a job, be a full-time student or have a disability diagnosis that keeps them from working.

“If you lose your job or something, I’m going to give you some community service normally to keep you active and keep you out and doing things — not as a punishment, but to make sure you don’t hole up and isolate yourself and not deal with people, because that’s what you’ve got to do,” Waddill said. “You’re going to be [dealing with people] the rest of your life, so we need to make sure there’s no backsliding during [the program].”

The juvenile program helps the participants learn social skills, and part of that means keeping a social log. The youths do community service as well, McCary said, to pay back for the crime they’re accused of.

Part of the sessions for the adults includes speaking up whenever Waddill asks for them to share what’s going on, which Breading said is difficult for some to do, but they make it through.

“But the good thing is ... even when those people that are reticent or don’t like to talk out in public, when they start describing [what’s going on], everybody is nodding with them,” Breading said. “So they get positive reinforcement from us and their peers.”

However, the programs don’t accept everyone. Waddill stressed that the adult program isn’t meant for people deemed incompetent to stand trial, and McCary said the juvenile program is for those considered medium- to high-risk.

Not everyone makes it through, either. Some fail, and their case gets tracked back into the criminal court system.

On Thursday, the adult court will have another graduation. Waddill said one of the participants almost didn’t make it.

“There’s at least one person that probably about six months ago said, ‘I’m done. I don’t want to do this anymore,’” he said. “And the [team] defense attorney talked to him, and his counselor talked to him. … You have a great benefit that can come to you if you will successfully complete this. And he’s graduating — and I’m proud of him.”

In a Zoom call, McCary and Prillwitz spoke proudly of different graduates and their lives after the program.

“We’ve had kids who have moved on to college and done really well,” Prillwitz said. “They’re living independently, and is that not what we want? To be involved in the community, working, going to school.”

Police crisis unit learning about magnitude of mental health needs in Denton

With the Denton Police Department’s mental health unit now at work, the program’s leads say they can get a better idea of what types of mental health crises Denton residents are dealing with.

Police Chief Frank Dixon said last year this team could curb people from the criminal justice system if what they truly need is an intervention. The unit, called the Crisis Intervention Response Team, had about 690 cases of people dealing with crises between May and August — the first two months of operation.

CIRT clinician manager Sara Gawor and Sgt. Elisa Howell, the team’s lead on the police response side, supervise the three pairs of officers and clinicians who are paired up for calls.

The team, along with the changes at the Police Department that followed the team’s creation, are helping the department gather more accurate data on mental health in the city.

While the department was building the Crisis Intervention Response Team, Howell said it became a requirement for police to write reports for mental health calls so they could have clear data. In an email Friday, she said Denton officers have only traditionally been required to write reports on criminal offenses.

“Mental health calls typically don’t involve an offense having occurred,” Howell said. “Despite there not being mandatory reporting, documentation was still occurring through the 911 call record and any notes the officer added into the call for service.”

She said she knew they had a lot of mental health-related calls come into dispatchers, so she told the team to buckle up once they could kick off.

“They have a high caseload,” Howell said. “I would say that it rivals what detectives have.”

Gawor said she wasn’t expecting this type of caseload.

“Because I’m not as familiar with the calls for service that were coming into the PD since I’ve only been here a year, I was surprised and almost kind of astounded, because my concern was: Where were all these going, or how were these handled before?” Gawor said.

Howell said the pairs listen to the radio to get information on incoming calls. Sometimes a patrol officer not on the team will request CIRT’s help on a call after recognizing there’s a mental health problem, or the pair can overtake a call they hear on the radio.

Suzanne Kaletta, a public safety communication division manager, said Monday that an eventual goal is for the Denton dispatch center to have clinicians there to help people calling with a crisis as well.

Once the pair arrives, Howell said they start de-escalating a crisis.

“The officer’s main concern when they’re on scene is to make sure that everything is safe. And then the clinician — this is really what is their expertise, so they’ll start engaging with the subject,” she said. “They know clinical questions that they need to ask to assess the individual and then they talk with their partner, the officer, to arrive at a decision on what needs to be done.”

This decision could mean realizing the subject just needs a referral to resources, doing an emergency detainment for a behavioral health hospital, or walking away and following up later.

A big part of these cases is the follow-ups. Although it depends on the team’s current caseload volume, Howell said they try to start those check-ins as quickly as possible, especially when those people reach out to them directly.

Gawor said in an email Friday they try to meet the person again face-to-face to connect them to services, but added that the follow-up can happen over the phone or through email.

“We are looking to assess the individual after the incident, provide education, open the door for our support, prevent future calls for service when possible and act as a liaison to help facilitate connecting them to any needed services,” she said. “Some of our community members have no idea where to turn to get help and they have no family/friend support.”

It’s a lot to do because it’s only Gawor and Howell sorting through those cases again to assign them out to their team.

Gawor said they close cases when they can’t find the individual, if they refuse to work with the response team, if the team has given them as many services as they can and the therapeutic connection isn’t beneficial anymore, or if the person isn’t in danger anymore or is improving.

Gawor acknowledged it’s unrealistic to meet everyone every time for a long engagement due to the high caseload.

“However, [the team] prioritize cases based on acuity (meaning higher risk clients),” Gawor said in an email. “We also want to spend more time working with the mental health consumers in the community that are receptive of our services, appreciative and truly benefiting from the encounters.”

They’ve found that most of their mental health cases involve people going through a type of psychosis and losing touch with reality.

“[Responding is] about meeting them where they’re at,” Gawor said. “So, understanding that to them, their delusions are very real, and acknowledging the feelings and the accompanying fear around that. … You’re working with them in crisis in this moment to keep them safe and to keep them as grounded as you possibly can.”

Gawor and Howell said it’s hard to narrow down any one story of success they’ve had in the last few months, but Howell did recall one young girl who wasn’t speaking.

“Most recently, one of the teams, they helped a young girl who had stopped talking and they got her connected to a music therapy program,” she said. “And she’s talking again, so I thought that was an amazing story.”

Pilot Point resident Basil Gist tries his hand at the Blacksmith Challenge during the North Texas Blacksmith Association’s annual hammer-in Sunday at TX-Ture Farm in Cross Roads.

‘Ghost guns’: Firearm kits bought online fuel epidemic of violence

CHULA VISTA, Calif. — Max Mendoza’s parents awakened just after dawn to a gunshot and ran from their bedroom to find their 12-year-old son propped against the couch, eyes wide in pain, terror and surprise.

“It’s the real one,” Max whispered, clutching his chest, seemingly astounded that a weapon resembling a toy could end his life in an instant.

But it did. Investigators in this city just south of San Diego are still trying to determine exactly what happened on that Saturday morning in July — if the seventh grader accidentally shot himself or if a 15-year-old friend discharged it while showing it off.

What is certain is the kind of weapon that killed Max. It was a “ghost gun.”

Ghost guns — untraceable firearms without serial numbers, assembled from components bought online — are increasingly becoming the lethal weapon of easy access for those legally barred from buying or owning guns around the country. The criminal underground has long relied on stolen weapons with sanded-off serial numbers, but ghost guns represent a digital-age upgrade, and they are especially prevalent in coastal blue states with strict firearm laws.

Nowhere is that truer than in California, where their proliferation has reached epidemic proportions, according to local and federal law enforcement officials in Los Angeles, Oakland, San Diego and San Francisco. Over the past 18 months, officials said, ghost guns accounted for 25% to 50% of firearms recovered at crime scenes. The vast majority of suspects caught with them were legally prohibited from having guns.

“I’ve been on the force for 30 years next month, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Lt. Paul Phillips of the San Diego Police Department. By the beginning of October, he said, the department had recovered almost 400 ghost guns, about double the total for all of 2020 with nearly three months to go in the year.

Law enforcement officials are not exactly sure why their use is taking off. But they believe it is basically a matter of a new, disruptive technology gradually gaining traction in a market, then rocketing up when buyers catch on. This isn’t just happening on the West Coast. Since January 2016, about 25,000 privately made firearms have been confiscated by local and federal law enforcement agencies nationwide.

Ghost guns, and the niche industry that produces them, have flourished because of a loophole in federal regulation: The parts used to build “privately made firearms” are classified as components, not actual guns, which means that online buyers are not required to undergo background checks or register the weapons. That makes them a powerful magnet for those banned from gun ownership, including felons, domestic abusers subject to orders of protection, the mentally ill and children, like the teenager who brought his gun into Max Mendoza’s apartment, according to police.

Closing that loophole is the focus of new regulations ordered by President Joe Biden. The rules would essentially treat ghost guns as traditional firearms — requiring core components to be engraved with serial numbers, imposing background checks and requiring online purchasers to pick up their orders at federally licensed gun shops.

Law enforcement officials in California think that the rules would do much to keep ghost guns out of the hands of criminals and children. “It’s definitely going to stop some of the most obvious problems,” said Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer, who is suing a leading gun-parts vendor.

But the new rules, which are likely to be challenged in court by gun rights groups, are not expected to be implemented until early next year. And gun control groups have raised doubts about the robustness of enforcement by federal firearms regulators.

What’s more, while the rules would create a set of legal roadblocks, law enforcement officials say the extralegal pipeline for parts is sure to adapt and thrive. There is a huge surfeit of supplies in circulation, and at the same time, the increasing availability of 3D printers, which can create gun components, has opened a new backdoor source of illegal weapons.

The epidemic seems to be disproportionately affecting young people, as purchasers, perpetrators and victims. Two years ago, a 16-year-old student walked into Saugus High School, north of Los Angeles, and killed two teenagers with a .45-caliber semi-automatic pistol assembled from a kit before turning the weapon on himself — a case that, more than any other, elevated the issue to national attention.

A deadly loophole

The decadeslong debate over gun control in Washington revolves around the regulation of traditional firearms. Ghost guns pose a more elemental question: What makes a gun a gun?

Every semi-automatic weapon consists of two main parts: the movable upper “slide,” which sits on the barrel, and the “receiver” or “frame.” Under federal law, any frame or receiver considered 80% finished is a functional firearm subject to the same regulations as a fully assembled gun. If it is less than 80% finished, it is not subject to the same federal safeguards.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives judges each component on a case-by-case basis. But critics have long accused the agency of failing to aggressively investigate companies that sell kits with everything necessary to quickly assemble a ghost gun.

“I think a lot of us thought this was a problem that we had 10 years to deal with, when it was, in reality, more like two,” said David Chipman, a former ATF agent who was withdrawn as Biden’s nominee to head the bureau in September amid fierce opposition from the gun lobby.

Chipman had pledged to make the issue a priority, and his failed nomination has left gun control advocates wondering how energetically the agency will enforce the new regulations. Nonetheless, the ATF has worked on dozens of ghost-gun busts with local police departments and has recently cracked down on Polymer80, the Nevada-based industry leader whose weapons accounted for the majority of ghost guns found at California crime scenes in 2019.

The company sells a wide range of components online, but the ATF focused on one of its most popular kits: the $590 “Buy, Build and Shoot” kit that contained almost everything needed to make a functional Glock-style pistol.

In December, the ATF raided the company’s headquarters near Reno, citing a failure by the company to submit the kits for regulatory approval.

The raid has not yet resulted in charges. But the company has stopped selling the kits.

Crimes and pastimes

Steven R. Ely, a 69-year-old retired high school teacher, had never really heard about ghost guns until he was almost killed by one.

A little after 10 p.m. April 24, he rounded a corner in San Diego’s bustling Gaslamp Quarter, heard four or five loud claps and felt something plink against his right side.

Ely saw a spreading patch of red. His knees gave way. He would spend weeks in the hospital.

Ely was among the victims of a flash of carnage that began, investigators say, when a man named Travis Sarreshteh, 32, walked up to a hotel parking attendant, Justice Boldin, and, without warning, shot him with a Polymer80 pistol. Boldin, 28, died almost instantly.

Then Sarreshteh, who pleaded not guilty after being charged with murder, brushed shoulders with a group of friends from New Jersey. He wheeled and fired, slightly wounding two of the men, police say. A third man was injured in the arm, lung, spleen and stomach. Ely was probably hit by that volley.

Police are still not sure how Sarreshteh may have gotten the weapon. But obtaining a ghost gun, they say, allowed him to dodge a background check that would have revealed a significant criminal history.

The shooting brought barely a ripple nationally. But it galvanized officials in San Diego.

“How could somebody who was barred from lawfully purchasing a firearm get a 9 millimeter gun and shoot five people in the middle of the street?” said Marni von Wilpert, a San Diego City Council member who pushed through a law banning guns without serial numbers.

Community leaders in some of the state’s violence-plagued urban neighborhoods have been sounding the alarm for the past couple of years, as teenagers snap up homemade guns for protection or as emblems of toughness.

“People aren’t buying regular guns anymore,” said Antoine Towers, who works for an anti-violence program in Oakland. “Almost all the youngsters are using ghosts.”

Early last year, Bryan Muehlberger, who lives north of Los Angeles, wanted to prove just how easily a minor could buy a gun kit online.

He ordered it using the name of his teenage daughter, Gracie, checking the boxes indicating that she was a legal buyer. The company (which he does not want to identify because it has his family’s personal information) processed the order without bothering to ensure that Gracie was older than 21, as state law requires.

“I get a box in the mail, and it says ‘Gracie Muehlberger’ right there on the label,” he said, pausing to collect himself. “I was dumbstruck.”

Gracie Muehlberger is dead. She was killed by a ghost gun, at age 15, along with 14-year-old Dominic Blackwell, in the Saugus High School shooting.

Efficacy of shots wanes, fueling boosters debate

As tens of millions of eligible people in the United States consider signing up for a COVID-19 booster shot, a growing body of early global research shows that the vaccines authorized in the United States remain highly protective against the disease’s worst outcomes over time, with some exceptions among older people and those with weakened immune systems.

But although the vaccines’ effectiveness against severe disease and hospitalization has mostly held steady, even through the summer surge of the highly transmissible delta variant, a number of published studies show that their protection against infection, with or without symptoms, has fallen.

Public health experts say the decline doesn’t mean vaccines aren’t working.

In fact, many studies show that the vaccines remain more than 50% effective at preventing infection, the level that all COVID vaccines had to meet or exceed to be authorized by the Food and Drug Administration back in 2020. But the significance of these declines in effectiveness — and whether they suggest all adults should be eligible for a booster shot — is still up for debate.

A study in England examined the vaccines’ effectiveness against the delta variant over time. It found that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is about 90% effective at preventing symptomatic infection two weeks after the second dose but drops to 70% effective after five months.

The same study found that the Moderna vaccine’s protection also drops over time.

A study in the U.S. and another in Canada looked at the vaccines’ effectiveness at preventing any infection from delta, symptomatic or not. Although they found different levels of decline, both studies found that the vaccines’ protection dropped over time.

But both the English and Canadian studies found that even after several months, the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines remain highly effective at preventing hospitalization.

Each of the three studies showed a different rate of decline in vaccine effectiveness, which can vary in studies depending on factors such as location, the study’s methods, and any behavior differences between those who have been vaccinated and the unvaccinated. Although one of the studies has been published, the other two have not yet been peer reviewed. Still, experts say that the research generally shows trends.

“The main objective of the COVID vaccine is to prevent severe disease and death, and they are still doing a good job at that,” said Melissa Higdon, a faculty member at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who leads a project to compile research on COVID vaccine performance.

But the decline in protection against infection will have an effect, she said.

“With true declines in vaccine effectiveness, we’ll likely see more cases overall,” said Higdon.

Data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show similar trends for the mRNA vaccines, and they also suggest that the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine is less effective against severe outcomes and infection than Pfizer or Moderna.

These results have helped to shape current booster recommendations in the U.S.: Among Pfizer and Moderna recipients, those 65 and older, and adults at high risk, are eligible six months after their second shots. Any adult immunized with J&J may get a booster after two months.

Pfizer and BioNTech asked the FDA last week to approve boosters for all adults. But experts are divided over whether booster shots are necessary for those beyond the most vulnerable.

There has been more agreement among experts about the need to offer extra protection to adults older than 65. The declines observed in vaccine effectiveness for this age group may have greater repercussions, since older people face a higher risk of hospitalization.

“For those over 65, getting a booster helps cover your bases to make sure you are extra, extra protected, because the consequences are higher,” said Eli Rosenberg, deputy director for science in the Office of Public Health at the New York State Department of Health, who has studied COVID vaccine effectiveness.

Seniors are also most likely to be affected by waning vaccine immunity now, since they were among the first to be vaccinated in the U.S. About 71% of people ages 65 and older — about 36 million people — completed their initial vaccination series more than six months ago. So far, about 31% have received a booster shot.

An additional 69 million people in the U.S. younger than 65, more than a quarter of that age group, are also past that six-month mark. Not all are eligible for booster shots, although the federal government may soon decide to extend eligibility for the Pfizer booster to everyone 18 and older.

Other countries, including Israel and Canada, have authorized booster shots for all adults. Early data from Israel shows that booster shots are effective at protecting against infection and hospitalization, at least in the short term.

But experts worry that a national focus on boosters will detract from what should be the country’s most important goal.

“It’s easy with all the discussion about boosters to lose that really important message that the vaccines are still working,” Rosenberg said. “Going from an unvaccinated to a vaccinated person is still the critical step.”