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Civil rights lawyer: Review needed for APD mental health calls

Prominent civil rights attorney Jim Harrington on Wednesday called for Austin police to employ an independent review of how police handle mental health calls and encounters with suicidal people.

Harrington, who founded and led the Texas Civil Rights Project for 25 years before retiring this year, penned an open letter to police Chief Art Acevedo indicating that, after the fatal police shooting of 26-year-old Micah Jester on Sunday, the time had come for a review.

Jester appeared to have been suffering a mental health crisis when police were summoned to her South Austin apartment. There, police heard her repeatedly yell for officers to kill her. They opened fire after seeing her point a weapon — which turned out to be a BB gun — at them, police have said.

“[I]t appears that the time has come for the police department to employ an independent consultant to re-evaluate and reform its procedures with regard to mental health calls,” Harrington wrote in his letter. “As has been noted, mental health calls are becoming ever more frequent.”

The Texas Civil Rights Project is not associated with Harrington’s letter, communications director Zenen Jaimes Perez said. However, the group has made similar calls in the past.

In February, an Austin police officer shot and killed an unarmed naked teenager who also appeared to be having a mental health crisis. That shooting led to the firing of officer Geoffrey Freeman and an ongoing lawsuit from victim David Joseph’s family.

Harrington said any independent review should look at the safety of the person in distress and the safety of officer.

“Particularly unsettling in this most recent case is that, yet again, there is no video recording of the incident, which seems unfathomable, given that the police were aware of the delicate situation to which they had been called,” Harrington said. “This lack of videotaping happens more frequently than it should.”

Police have audio recordings of the shooting but no dashboard cameras from police vehicles at the scene were pointed toward where the shooting occurred, police have said.

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