State agencies unite to reduce mental illness in jails

By JACK NISSEN
Capital News Service

LANSING — Up to 64 percent of county jail inmates in Michigan have some form of mental illness.

And while lawmakers discuss ways to reduce that number, law enforcement officers have put their own solutions to the test.

“Police chiefs are saying, ‘We’re spending tons of time with individuals with severe mental illness in the community and then we’re bringing them to jail,’” said Ross Buitendorp, a board member of the Mental Health Diversion Council.

Jails have become mental health hospitals, said Blaine Koops, the executive director of the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association.

Koops estimates between 45 and 65 percent of county jail inmates receive some form of psychotropic medication for mental illness, and 90 to 95 percent have some type of substance abuse problems.

Jails are not the best places to treat people with mental illness, Buitendorp said, so agencies are working together to identify and treat those who need help.

Law enforcement agencies are tackling the problem by increasing use of a decades-old program called Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training, Buitendorp said. The 40-hour class trains officers to better identify people with mental illness, and intervene in a smarter way.

A CIT-trained officer can recognize symptoms that someone who is suicidal, bipolar or schizophrenic might show during times of stress.

“What the officer does is look at the behavior of the person in front of them, and run it against the symptoms they’ve been trained in,” said Rafael Diaz, a lieutenant with the Kalamazoo Public Safety Department. “So when they see these things, they can separate the conduct driven by a mental health crisis as opposed to criminal conduct.”

The goal after recognizing those symptoms is slowing things down. Officers have time on their side, Diaz said.

“They’re going to try to open lines of communication using a set of skills called ‘active listening,’” Diaz said.

Active listening is an effort to hear what the person is saying. That can take time because many mentally ill patients have thought-process problems. But a successful attempt can calm the individuals instead of further agitating them.

In addition to keeping people with mental illness out of jail, CIT training also emphasizes diverting patients already behind bars to a mental care facility. Officials without such training are much less likely to move a person with a mental health crisis to an appropriate facility.

While Michigan doesn’t keep track of the reduced number of injuries during these interactions, other cities like Memphis, Tennessee, where CIT training has been in wider use, show the training works, Diaz said.

So Michigan agencies are doing more of it. The Community Mental Health Board of Clinton, Ingham and Eaton Counties reports 95 cases of the method used in the last year. lt expects to have 160 officers trained before 2018.

Buitendorp is also the director of substance abuse at Network180, a community health agency in Kent County that has helped train 80 officers.

“The police departments and the emergency departments are our biggest fans and our biggest partners,” Buitendorp said, “because we all serve the same clients.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan says the increased training is a great first step to addressing larger issues like mass incarceration of undeserving individuals.

“Recognizing that mental health issues are at the base of a lot of these criminal charges is so important,” said Shelli Weisenberg, ACLU’s political director. “Putting the resources for the training, creating those collaborations even though we don’t have resources in place, it’s a fabulous first start.”

The money comes from grants distributed by the federal government and the jail-diversion committee, donations from organizations like the National Alliance for Mental Illness and increased commitments from police agencies willing to send officers to be trained.

For example, Oakland County has a mental crisis center, called Common Ground, designed for people needing immediate mental help. It’s an important stop for many police officers who need to drop off a mentally ill person, said Jeff Kapuscinski, the director of business development at the agency.

“We think that the programs and services we provide for people in those situations are not only more appropriate for the care they might need at that moment, but it’s also less costly for taxpayers than sending them to jail,” Kapuscinski said.

Kapuscinski says Common Ground is one of only a handful of agencies of its kind in the country. The agency diverted 431 people from jail in 2015, saving Oakland County more than $5 million.

The savings represent progress, Kapuscinski said, but it’s not more than money is necessary. A lack of material resources, like available beds in hospitals, is a serious problem for mentally ill patients.

“Frequently, it’s been our experience that folks experiencing mental health issues or a mental health crisis are lower in terms of the priority of being served in an emergency department,” Kapuscinski said. “That’s when emergency department boarding becomes an issue.”

Both Koops and Kapuscinski agree it’s not uncommon for inmates to wait weeks for an open spot.

“The number-one issue up here is not training, it’s the availability of bed space for mental health patients,” said Cheboygan County Sheriff Dale Clarmont. “We had a violent offender with mental issues a little while ago who waited three days before we got a bed for him.”

AuSable Valley Community Mental Health, which covers Iosco, Ogemaw and Oscoda counties, averages three to four such individuals a year. Northern Lakes Community Mental Health, which covers six counties in the northwest part of the Lower Peninsula, diverted 30 people people from jail.

Clarmont requires that all of his officers receive training every 24 months, but those training sessions are less in-depth than some that are hosted further south.

“We can train them for the very short term,” he said. “But we are not mental health officials. To be frank, we don’t have the medication or facilities.”

Despite the mountain of barriers many sheriffs and community health officials have begun to climb, other public figures involved in the conversation are on the move. In July, 2017 the MiLegislature created the House C.A.R.E.S. task force made up of 14 lawmakers. The group is charged with addressing the growing issue of mental health, and that includes mental health reform in the criminal justice system.

“We’ve identified through the first meetings of the task force, perhaps we can do a better job of communication when someone enters the corrections area,” said Rep. Dave Pagel, R-Berrien Springs, a member of the task force. “We have to find the best way to care for these folks.”

For Koops, of the Sheriffs’ Association, the pivot toward more help for the mentally ill is a welcome first step toward solving an old problem.

“From a personal perspective, I’ve been doing this for 42 years,” he said. “And this is the first time in 42 years I’ve actually seen some coalitions come together to see this issue and want to work and make it better.”