Effort launches to keep mentally ill out of jail.

February 13, 2019

Members of the Jail Diversion Collaborative of Lake, Mason and Oceana counties engage in discussion during a recent meeting.

Effort launches to keep mentally ill out of jail.

#JailDiversionCollaborative

By Allison Scarbrough, Editor.

PENTWATER – While sitting at his computer about a year and a half ago, Pentwater Police Chief Laude Hartrum discovered a grant opportunity that could change how law enforcement and community mental health providers respond to mental health issues.

Hartrum, along with local, county, and state law enforcement, court personnel, hospital staff, and mental health officials, is part of a collaborative that helps people with mental health issues get the appropriate help they need and keep them out of jail.

The Jail Diversion Collaborative of Lake, Mason and Oceana counties meets regularly to “identify community-driven priorities to improve identification and response to persons with mental illness and co-occurring substance abuse disorders who interact with the criminal justice system,” states the program’s strategic plan.

West Michigan Community Mental Health and the Pentwater Police Department secured a $75,000 grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) to develop the strategic plan, Hartrum said.

“We started about a year ago reaching out to stakeholders in Lake, Mason and Oceana counties,” said the chief, and since then approximately 40 people have become involved.

“We have developed a plan to help divert people struggling with mental illness out of jail,” Hartrum said. Being able to implement the plan entirely will require more funding. The collaborative is working to secure a grant for an additional $250,000 from BJA.

In the meantime, the collaborative is working to do what they can. State, county and local law enforcement plan to increase their training for officers so that they have more awareness and tools to assist them when they work with people suffering from mental illness.

“One of the long-term goals of the collaborative is to implement a form of a ‘crisis intervention team,'” Hartrum said. “The team could be made up of mental health staff and law enforcement to identify and reach out to those struggling with mental illness before they break the law.”

“This is an issue all over the country – not just in our small community,” Hartrum said.

A big part of the problem for law enforcement is a lack of human resources to deal with subjects with mental health disorders. When a person decompensates; becomes violent; and is taken into police custody, officers must spend several hours at the hospital. Often, police in rural communities have to travel long distances to transport patients to treatment centers. This also drains departments’ time and resources.

It’s much less expensive for taxpayers to have law enforcement assist the mentally ill before an episode occurs that lands them in jail. The jail has become a “dumping ground” for the mentally ill, he said. “We can do better. We don’t devote enough money and resources to mental health.”

Law enforcement in this area generally deals with at least two or three psychotic episodes, including suicides, per week, Hartrum said.

Prevention tactics are key. “We need to get the mental health services to people before they decompensate. Police officers are often the first ones who interact with people in crisis.”

The goal is to provide the police officers with the right tools for dealing with mental health events and the “opportunity to make the best decisions that they can.”

“Every county is a little different – we need to come up with a uniform way to handle mental health issues. There are many challenges, and it’s complicated.

“I think our most significant accomplishment so far is the development of a shared vocabulary (of mental health terms) with people in different disciplines and building relationships across disciplines. We all have our vocabulary – law enforcement, courts, health providers and mental health workers.”

In addition to the shared language, addressing the issue is reducing the stigma of mental health problems.

“By being able to look at the system as a whole, you gain sensitivity to mental health issues.”

Officers are now notifying prosecutors in writing of the mental health issues when requesting a warrant, the chief said. “We’re doing what many agencies have done that has been successful.”

What piqued the chief’s interest in the issue are the mental health problems he observes in his jurisdiction. “It’s a small town, but we deal with people who have mental health issues.” With the median age of 65 in Pentwater, these are folks suffering from all forms of mental illness.

“Whether it’s depression, dementia, or substance abuse, our people suffer. Part of law enforcement job is to help the people we serve. This is part of our job.”

The chief is optimistic that positive changes are going to make a lasting impact. “There are a lot of exciting things going on with mental health and law enforcement.”

This story is copyrighted © 2019, all rights reserved by Media Group 31, LLC, PO Box 21, Scottville, MI 49454. No portion of this story or images may be reproduced in any way, including print or broadcast, without expressed written consent.

Members of the Jail Diversion Collaborative of Lake, Mason and Oceana counties engage in discussion during a recent meeting.

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