A few columns ago when I wrote about my belief that the most effective law enforcement lays closest to the people I may have ruffled some state agency feathers. My thoughts were directed at the system, not the brave men and women wearing a badge and any color uniform however I remain steadfast in my convictions supporting local control.
I began this column in an effort to engage you in considering public safety issues prior to emergencies. I grew up fearing contact with the police courtesy of "You'd better be good or that cop will get you." Unfortunately I hear a lot of that profiling even today. My youngest son, Bill a Raymond Fire District paramedic firefighter can stand in uniform on a street corner holding a boot and people will drive by and put money in it. My oldest son, john, a Washington State Patrol detective sergeant and I can stand together in uniform on the same street corner, except we have to wear our bulletproof vests. All of us in public safety and emergency response agencies really do have the same mission; to keep our communities safe. I hope my column provides insight into our profession.
Last week, with a little poetic license, we started to look at some of the law, policies and court decisions that affect our profession. One of the most difficult of these is dealing with the mentally ill offender.
Mental illness is a complex issue both in our profession and in our society. All of us empathize with individuals and families in dealing with its manifestations. In or world of law enforcement we cannot afford to ignore the impact of any offender, including the mentally ill. We respond to calls for assistance when someone violates the law. If our officers have probable cause that a criminal act has occurred or a person is a grave threat to others or themselves they can make a custodial arrest in the interest of public safety. Here is where the paths start to diverge involving the mentally ill and other offenders.
Our officers are empowered to intervene in even a non-criminal situation if there is grave danger inherent either to the person or the public. The person constituting the threat to themselves or others could be taken into civil custody and transported to the closest treatment provider or, in our case, hospital emergency room. A mental health professional would be called. The person may restrained by the hospital staff either physically or chemically to keep them from injuring themselves and an assessment performed based on the results the person may then be released or placed on a 72 hour hold for further diagnosis and treatment. Locally we have made progress over the past few years. Working together with Willapa Behavioral Health, the hospitals, fire and law enforcement, and the board of county commissioners we are dealing with these types of situations. Unresolved issues remain, the most volatile of these being people who intend to do harm to themselves. A mental health professional's solution to this problem of a single counseling session at the hospital with a promise of follow-up sessions does not always coincide with the peace officer's view when he has just risked his or her life to disarm that client and wants the full 72 hour hold. Both professionals have the best interests of the client in mind, just from different perspectives.
In this situation I would offer a common sense solution. In cases of threatened suicides especially with a weapon, 72-hour holds should be mandatory so that a doctor might have an opportunity to assess instead of a mental health professional. It would be much more expensive, but don't we give someone in this extreme situation more than an interview?
Criminal arrests of mentally ill offenders constitute an even more potentially dangerous situation. The issue is space and staffing for secure treatment in the mental health community vs. local incarceration with no treatment. Here in his arena the system is plainly not working. The procedures in place on both sides of the fence are way too much resource-driven, not best practice driven. The results have been chaotic with the offender usually spending too much time in jail and clearly not enough in secure treatment.
I can sympathize with treatment providers in that I face the same issues in our jail in deciding whom to hold and whom to release to make room for a more dangerous offender. I am convinced that we must find a solution that prioritizes public safety. The status quo is unacceptable.
We, as citizens, must decide on our priorities for public services. If safe communities in near the top we have a responsibility to inform ourselves and force change by supporting and electing those who share those views.
All offenders can be a threat to public safety in some way. I believe in second chances if a responsible effort is made to rehabilitate, especially by the offender. I do not believe in third, fourth and fifth chances. The safety of our children, families and community then has full priority and the offender deserves to be incarcerated where he or she cannot re-offend.
If the criminal activity is driven by mental illness and not preconceived intent, two separate systems are brought into play. The mental health system must interact closely with the criminal justice system. We try our best however both are hamstrung by staffing and space availability. In both arenas too many critical decisions regarding the length of incarceration or secure treatment are economic, staffing and resource-based instead of founded on a best practice model. We must find a way to provide both the mental health and criminal justice systems with enough resources to do their jobs. The focus needs to shift in serious cases, both in criminal and mentally ill-driven offenses, to protecting the victims and society in general.
I've struggled with this issue for years as sheriff. It's been a great frustration, particularly on the state level. I will continue to engage partnerships and do everything possible to best serve you.
Here are some thoughts on possible solutions:
? Create a regional jail system for serious offenders. Include a secure hospital section for physical and mentally ill inmates. Local corrections staffs and supervises the criminal section, and the state staffs and supervises both hospital sections. Money is saved, security is maintained and needy inmates receive treatment. Everyone benefits. This plan would spread easy access to these services to every section of our state.
? Suicide attempts result in mandatory 72 hour civil commitment in a secure mental health treatment facility with a stipulated examination by a physician and an agreed upon plan to address the issue that is monitored. Failure to meet the requirements results in another in-patient treatment of increased duration.
? Mentally ill offenders who commit crimes and are judged not culpable and are committed to secure mental health institutions must be held at a minimum for the same length of time as a comparable criminal commitment before any consideration of release.
? If a mentally ill offender is released from a secure correctional or mental health institution with a plan involving the ongoing administration of medicines, they must take them. If they do not appear in person at a designated location and voluntarily take their prescribed dosage they will again be immediately confined in a secure treatment facility for re-evaluation prior to another out-patient release attempt. Resources must be provided to enable a staffing level to accomplish this.