How Texas Cops Turn Mental Health Crises into Deportations

How Texas Cops Turn Mental Health Crises into Deportations

Two recent cases in Central Texas illustrate how police aggression and the “sanctuary cities” ban have built a nasty pipeline to deportation.

Courtesy/Family of Janelie Rodriguez

Two recent cases in Central Texas illustrate how police aggression and the “sanctuary cities” ban have built a nasty pipeline to deportation.

by Gus Bova
August 30, 2018

Janelie Rodriguez’s family had already decided: If she had another bad episode, they’d call 911 and have her taken to the hospital. One night last October, it happened. Rodriguez, a 25-year-old who suffers from intermittent psychosis, was struck with paranoid hallucinations; she began hurling wild accusations at her brother in an increasingly heated argument. Her family — five siblings, her mom and stepdad — knew she needed medication, but she often stubbornly refused treatment. Eventually, her little sister made the call for help — but help is not what they got.

“We were thinking we would get professional support to calm her down,” said Rodriguez’s 19-year-old brother, Alexis. “But instead, it was police.”

That night, records show, two Hays County sheriff’s deputies and one police officer showed up at the family’s two-story home in Buda, a booming exurb just south of Austin. Their arrival sent Rodriguez into a panic. Just over 5 feet tall and weighing less than 100 pounds, she didn’t want the three male cops to touch her, and she tried hiding in a bathroom. The officers ran out of patience within minutes, according to family members. “They went from being patient to like they were about to arrest a criminal on the street, instantly,” said Alexis. “They start circling her, and obviously she freaks out; that’s when they pin her down.”

As the three armed men forcibly restrained her on a bed, police allege that Rodriguez bit the wrist of Buda Police Officer Kevin Oates. A spokesperson for the Hays County Sheriff’s Office, Lieutenant Todd Riffe, said the officers were forced to detain Rodriguez because her family members expressed fear for their safety, and added that Rodriguez’s choice to bite the officer was “not in [their] control.” Rodriguez’s brother told the Observer he wasn’t afraid of his sister, and the whole family agrees the police needlessly escalated the situation.

Buda Police Officer Kevin Oates  Courtesy/Facebook

Rodriguez denies biting the cop and was never convicted of doing so, but the allegation nonetheless upended her life. Rodriguez is undocumented: Brought by her mom from Mexico at age 2, she obtained DACA — the Obama-era program that allows immigrants brought as kids to live and work in the United States — in 2013. But her documents were later stolen, and she was unable to renew the status.

That night in October, the cops took her to a hospital, but after she got out in late November, officers arrested her on a felony assault charge for the alleged bite. Once Rodriguez was locked up, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued a detainer, an order for the jail not to release her without giving ICE time to pick her up. In all, she spent six months in county jail before agreeing to a plea deal, upon which she was transferred to an ICE facility in South Texas, where she now faces deportation to a country she doesn’t remember.

Rodriguez’s story is one of two recent cases in Central Texas that illustrate how poor handling of mental health crises and police cooperation with ICE — as mandated by Senate Bill 4 — have dovetailed to create a deportation pipeline for immigrants dealing with mental health problems.

Janelie Rodriguez, left, and her mother, Janeth.  Courtesy/Family of Janelie Rodriguez

Advocates say the problem starts with sending armed officers to handle mental health emergencies. “Law enforcement has been thrust into being first responders in mental health crises,” said Greg Hansch, policy director for the Texas branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “The reality is, their tactics often escalate the situation, rather than de-escalate it, and that feeds directly into a crime being committed.”

Such encounters often have lasting consequences. For Texans of color, they end in death at a disturbing rate. Shy of that, advocates say police responses regularly result in trumped-up charges of assaulting an officer or resisting arrest. And for undocumented immigrants, such charges often lead to deportation, even without a conviction. Senate Bill 4, Texas’ 2017 “sanctuary cities” ban, requires jailers in the state to honor all ICE detainers, regardless of criminal charge or mental health considerations.

Take the case of Tania Silva. A 21-year-old Austinite and community college student, Silva is also undocumented and has been diagnosed with schizophrenia. In July, Silva was having an episode, hearing voices and wandering through East Austin, acting oddly. A concerned resident invited Silva into her home and called EMS, but instead, three police officers arrived.

According to police records reviewed by the Observer, the encounter went south when Silva refused to relinquish a small dog she was holding at the time, and which officers knew was giving her comfort. Two male officers grabbed her by each arm and handcuffed her. Panicked, Silva lashed out, allegedly kicking and scratching one of the officers. Then, one cop struck her in the back, and she was restrained with a hobble strap.

Tania Silva  Courtesy/Family of Tania Silva

Rather than take her to a hospital, the officers booked her into the Travis County Jail on a felony assault charge, where ICE placed a detainer on her. Silva’s condition deteriorated in jail, her sister said.

Before Senate Bill 4 kicked in last September, things likely would’ve gone differently. Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez maintained a policy of rejecting most ICE detainers — a procedure the legislation was designed to kill. “Situations like this are heartbreaking and unfortunately, not uncommon,” Hernandez said in a July statement about Silva’s case. “This is one of the reasons I continue to oppose SB 4; it denies law enforcement the discretion to do the right thing for the right reason.”

After three weeks in jail and under pressure from multiple attorneys, ICE suddenly dropped the hold on Silva. Advocates say the severity of her mental health situation may have contributed to ICE’s unusual decision. Yanked from the brink of deportation, Silva bonded out of jail and checked into a private hospital, where family members say she’s recovering.

The Buda and Austin police departments, as well as ICE, declined to comment for this story.

Rodriguez, so far, has been less fortunate. A rail-thin young woman bubbling with nervous energy, she’s a graduate of Del Valle High School and worked at a mall in Austin before her legal troubles began. For years, Rodriguez has experienced periodic hallucinations, which she’s treated on and off with medication. Her mental health problems have caused her to go through patches of homelessness; after obtaining DACA status in 2013, she was living on the streets when her documents for renewing were stolen.

Janelie Rodriguez and her family.  Courtesy/Family of Janelie Rodriguez

Now, she’s locked up in the South Texas Detention Complex in Pearsall, a two-hour drive from her family. During multiple video calls this month, she said she’s not having episodes, but she’s not on antipsychotic medication either, so they could happen at any time. As of Monday, she’d spent three weeks in voluntary segregation — alone nearly the entire day — because she couldn’t sleep around the other detainees. In her more hopeless moments, she’s wondered if deportation is her only way out from behind bars. “I’ve been locked up for eight months,” she said. “I miss being free; I just want out of here as soon as possible.”

During the incident last October, police elected to take Rodriguez to a hospital, rather than jail. She was then transferred to a state hospital in Kerrville, where she spent three weeks before being released, which she thought resolved the matter. But a month later, in December, a Hays County deputy procured a warrant for her arrest on a felony assault charge.

Late one night in mid-January, Rodriguez was off her medication again and gripped by a paranoid vision that her stepfather was secretly hurting her brother. She wound up outside her Buda home, trying loudly to convince her siblings to flee to Austin with her, prompting a neighbor to call the police. After she’d run off alone, police — including Officer Oates, the same Buda cop she allegedly bit three months before — caught up with her near a Whataburger. Scared, Rodriguez ran.

The cops caught up to her near the I-35 frontage road, and while arresting her, she says an officer slammed her head against a patrol car and used zip ties to secure her wrists so tightly the ties pierced the skin. In turn, police allege she scratched two Buda police officers “with her fingernail” — earning two more felony assault charges.

After six months languishing in jail on an ICE detainer, Rodriguez pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors for evading and resisting arrest, and all three felonies were dropped. But in a way, the damage was done: She’d been fed into Texas’ deportation pipeline, and criminal charges and convictions damage immigration cases, making it hard, for example, to renew DACA status.

To stop up the pipeline that Rodriguez is caught in, advocates say police must cease arresting people during mental health crises in the first place. Beyond better training for police, that  means cutting cops out of the equation, according to Chris Harris, an organizer with Grassroots Leadership, an Austin group that fights mass incarceration.

“We have to start looking at the overall systems in place, in terms of who is responding,” said Harris, citing a Dallas pilot program that pairs officers with health professionals. “Folks in the mental health profession won’t see physical domination of someone in crisis as an option, so it’s much less likely things will escalate.”

If Rodriguez is deported, she’d likely go to Cuernavaca, where her ailing maternal grandparents live, but her family worries she’d be in danger. “Why do they want to deport her from me, when they know she’s someone who needs to be here, who grew up here?” asked Rodriguez’s mother, Janeth. “She has her sickness, and if she ends up on the street there, they’re going to kill her, kidnap her, traffic her.”

In recent weeks, support has built for Rodriguez’s case. Activists have launched a petition for her release. And she’s secured the pro-bono services of Austin attorney Chito Vela, who also worked on Silva’s case. Vela said he’s preparing to apply for an immigration bond for Rodriguez. He just has to convince a judge to overlook her criminal charges.