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What is a mental health officer? A closer look at Wednesday's Rockdale officer-involved shooting

KRHD speaks with colleague who helped build Deputy Sam Ferguson's position in a town with few mental health resources.
Posted at 8:14 PM, Oct 20, 2022
and last updated 2022-10-20 21:33:34-04

ROCKDALE, Texas — Wednesday was a horrifying day in Milam County for so many people.

For those who cared for Milam County Sheriff’s Deputy Sam Ferguson IV.

And for the loved ones of a man suffering suicidal thoughts in a mental health crisis.

A mental health assessment on this individual outside of Rockdale ended with an exchange of gunfire, leaving the man in question dead and Ferguson seriously wounded.

Ferguson's job as Milam County’s only mental health officer is a special one.

Shawn Edwards, regional director of the Texas Law Enforcement Peer Network, is a friend of Ferguson. He visited him at Baylor Scott & White Hospital in Temple following the shooting.

“This field [mental health work] is for unique officers who have patience and have time ,and who try to use tactics outside of the box other than just direct commands or direct presence," Edwards told KRHD.

Edwards has specialized in mental health-based police work for 16 years, most recently with the Burleson County Sheriff's Office. He actually helped establish Ferguson as Milam County’s first mental health officer back in January of this year. Officers like these will dedicate their time to reduce instances of arrest and incarceration for those citizens who just need care and help.

“The primary focus on that is, having a specially trained officer to go out and recognize behaviors, and then spend time to help them come up with options and solutions," Edwards said.

When Ferguson was visiting the home of the man in question on Wednesday, he wasn’t alone. He was there with staff from Central County Services of Temple – the local mental health authority. They were there to assess the man’s mental health state.

CCS CEO Johnnie Wardell said her organization does the best it can to assist residents of Milam County with their mental health, but resources are limited.

“We have contracts with the state of Texas to serve the indigent and Medicaid population," she said. "It’s basically for individuals who have severe and persistent mental illness if you’re an adult. That’s bipolar, major depressive disorder, and schizophrenia.”

These mental health professionals will visit homes with Ferguson and provide services at local clinics. But for those people who do not financially qualify for treatment at the clinics, or who are suffering PTSD or depression without other specific diagnosis – there's not a whole lot that can be done to help them within Milam County lines, Wardell noted.

And for even those who qualify, CCS can only do so much with the staff and availability they have.

“I mean, we’re carrying four vacant positions on [a] grant, because, the dollars are there, but the people are not," Wardell said.

When Ferguson’s position as mental health officer was created back in January, the sheriff’s office said the officer, with a history of working in a mental health unit at the University of Texas, jumped at the chance to be involved. While Wednesday’s shooting was a heartbreaking reality of the job, Shawn Edwards said this is a career Ferguson is passionate about.

"Sam's a good guy," Edwards said. "He's got a lot of things that he's been doing over there to help with jail diversions, and just working really hard at being good at his position."

Ferguson continues to recover in hospital, where Edwards said he is surrounded by family and law enforcement offering support.

The name of the deceased man has not been made public at this time, but family have been notified of his passing, according to the Milam County Sheriff's Office.