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Cops now first line against mental illness

Staff writer

As often as five times a week, local police officers deal with people having mental health issues, and in the words of the sheriff, “it’s not an easy road.”

Two weeks ago, Hillsboro police had to intervene when a woman threatened an acquaintance and police.

After a counselor from Prairie View assessed the woman, the counselor recommended she be taken to an inpatient facility for further evaluation.

Officer Randy Brazil said the 20-minute incident started out as a welfare check.

“On the way to the welfare check, it turned into a burglary,” he said.

Brazil said his adrenaline ran high while dealing with the woman.

“You try to be safe and yet you try to control her at the same time,” he said. “There’s a level of anxiety. Just wanting to get her under control — it’s very nerve wracking. Makes your blood pressure go up, I can tell you that. ... You don’t want to send her off on another tangent, but you do want to get her under control.”

He thought about how upset her family members would have been if they had seen what was going on. At the hospital, she was lying on her back hyperventilating, so he sat her up to help ease her.

“At first, it was terrible,” Brazil said. “She was out of control. After three days, she got decent. ... We’re doing our best. We just try to do the best we know how to do it.”

That led to her being taken to Hillsboro Community Hospital and held until a judge ordered her admitted to Larned State Hospital.

After that, police guarded her at the hospital until a bed was available in Larned a week later.

During that week, police department spent 153 man-hours guarding her.

Mark Rooker, executive officer at Hillsboro Community Hospital, said he was glad for the partnership between the hospital and police when someone must be held for a psychiatric bed.

Chief nursing officer DJ Craighead said police were there the majority of the time during that week.

“They’d sit outside the door for the most part,” she said. “If we had to go into the room, some of them would go in with us. Others, as long as they could see, they would stay outside the room.”

“We are thankful for the Hillsboro police department,” Rooker said. “It provided a different layer. We’re grateful for their partnership with us.”

The length of time it took to get a bed at Larned isn’t unusual. Sometimes it’s longer.

“It should not take that long for someone to get help,” Marion police chief Clinton Jeffrey said. “It’s a burden on them and on the taxpayers and the police.”

Sheriff Rob Craft said he was aware of times when the wait had been two weeks.

Larned has less than 100 beds and typically has 90 to 96 patients.

“When the state closed all of their mental health facilities down several years ago, they basically dumped everything on the local level, and the problem is that the local level is not equipped to deal with them,” Craft said. “We just don’t have enough beds available for mental health care.”

Stays at state hospitals are brief.

“They medicate them into compliance, then kick them out,” Craft said. “They become a problem again and start all over.”

The situation has become all too common.

Craft said his department typically deals with four to five calls a week involving people having a mental-health crisis.

“They might not start out as mental health but that’s ultimately the reason for the calls,” Craft said.

Officers don’t always know when they are sent on a call that the person has mental issues.

“It depends on the call, between suicidal and people who are just unable to control their actions or emotions, which gets us involved,” Craft said. “Often times, it’s just someone unable to control their actions or emotions.”

Sometimes officers can talk them into being evaluated and they voluntarily will seek treatment.

“A lot of times they are seeking help and don’t know how to go about it,” Craft said. “We cannot force them unless they are a danger to themselves or others.”

If people don’t seek treatment, officers are likely to be back with them a few months down the road, Craft said.

Not all calls are as dramatic as the recent one in Hillsboro. Police chief Jessey Hiebert said the department had two calls last week involving people with mental-health issues.

In one case, family members had contacted Prairie View to say they were concerned about a relative’s welfare. Prairie View contacted police to pick the man up and take him to Prairie View.

In the second case, a Prairie View counselor asked police to take her client to the hospital so the process of getting him admitted somewhere else for mental health care could be done.

Hiebert said mental-health issues and substance-abuse issues often go hand in hand.

“If they have an abuse issue, it contributes to their suicidal thoughts,” he said.

Jeffrey estimates that was true about 75% of the time.

Hiebert said Hillsboro police were going to add training in dealing with mental health issues to their agenda. But not a lot of training is available.

“Whose job is it to deal with these?” he said. “It is ours.”

The department had six calls involving people having mental-health crises in 2021, and already there have been three in January.

Officers don’t have the skills to deal with mental health issues, Hiebert said.

“We all have to wing it,” he said. “We are the people who are called every time it happens. They call us.”

Marion officers were called once to a Chase County man sitting at a picnic table outside Carlsons’ grocery store and cutting himself.

“That was pretty high intensity,” Jeffrey said.

After police talked to him, the man agreed to be taken to St. Luke Hospital.

Then police sat with the man and until he calmed down.

“Once we put them in police protective custody, we have to stay with them,” Jeffrey said.

At the hospital, the man was defiant but not violent. Marion police ended up transporting him to Osawatomie State Hospital a couple of days later when a bed opened up.

Chase County residents are sent to Osawatomie, but Marion County residents are sent to Larned.

One tactic police use is to talk to mentally disturbed people as if they are people instead of suspects, Jeffrey said.

“We have to tell them we’re not going to take them to jail,” he said. “We’ll arrange for them and try to help them through their crisis.”

Marion police were more recently called to check on an older man who was reported to be suicidal.

“The officer came in to talk to him, and the man had a revolver in his hands and was putting it together,” Jeffrey said.

The officer saw it was not operational and took it from him. The man’s children came and took him to the hospital.

“A lot of officers would have seen the gun and gotten tunnel vision, and something bad could have happened,” Jeffrey said.

Jeffrey said police had 15 calls reporting suicidal people during 2021.

The department has seen an upward trend in mental-health calls since 2018.

“We have not had any this year,” he said.

He does think it’s a good idea for his officers to get training on dealing with people having psychiatric issues.

Craft said if someone was a danger only to himself or herself,, officers were limited what they can do.

“If they are a danger to others as well, then that changes the game,” he said. “It’s unacceptable to not have any other way to help the local community. It’s getting bigger and bigger. It’s a growing thing and a building crisis for the state of Kansas.”

Officers don’t have the ability to understand the mentally ill, and people having a mental-health crisis often don’t understand the intentions of officers, Craft said.

“You feel helpless sometimes,” he said. “We’re really trying to get them through this crisis so they can get help, and that can lead to a better lifestyle. I know what I can do legally, but I know that isn’t a long-term fix. I fear that we’ll see this person again down the road.”

State law forbids taking a mentally ill person to jail. If they already were in jail before symptoms of mental illness appeared, they can remain there, he said.

“Law enforcement becomes the people who deal with it, and law enforcement is not the place or the people who should be doing it,” Craft said. “By default the majority of mental-health holding places are the jails. That is putting a huge strain on the jails.”

Unless the state creates additional facilities for mental health patients, the problem will only get worse, Craft predicted.

Last modified Jan. 19, 2022

 

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