Police officers forced to drive mental health patients downstate

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By CAMERYN CASS
Capital News Service

LANSING — A shortage of Upper Peninsula psychiatric units forces police officers to drive some patients handcuffed for up to 10 hours to receive a psychiatric evaluation downstate.

Bills are pending in both the House and Senate to allow private companies to transport them instead, if a community panel agrees that’s the best option.

The legislation wouldn’t solve the problem of limited psychiatric services in northern Michigan, said  Rep. Beau LaFave, R-Iron Mountain, who introduced it in March. It will make receiving psychiatric assistance a bit easier on the patient and police in rural areas, however, he said.

“It’s fixing one of the most broken pieces for the short term,” LaFave said.

Similar legislation is sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Ed McBroom, R- Waucedah Township.

Police now transport involuntary patients — those too ill to see their need for treatment — because they can legally detain them if necessary, said Michael St. John, the chief executive officer of Pathways, a community mental health service based in Marquette that serves four Upper Peninsula counties.

Voluntary patients, those who recognize their need for help and willingly go, can be taken to the nearest inpatient psychiatric facility by private companies.

Delta Force PI, a security company Pathways uses, transports patients in comfortable, discreetly marked Impalas, said Molly Barron, the chief operating officer of the company. That’s a different ride than a police cruiser.

“How would you feel about your loved one handcuffed in the back seat of a police car and they’re not even criminals?” Barron said. “There’s a stigma with that.”

Private security transport officers are required to undergo extensive training for certifications and licensing to work with mental health patients. That is training few, if any, police officers undergo, Barron said. 

If the legislation passes, Delta Force would train drivers in defense tactics and expand its fleet, Barron said. It is already starting to prepare for this possibility. 

Police don’t want to do it, said Jim McNeil, the CEO of Delta Force PI and a retired police officer. 

It takes officers at least two days to make such trips downstate, meaning they’re usually on overtime, said Marquette County Sheriff Greg Zyburt. Gas and housing for these trips also come out of the budget.

“Ultimately, what it comes down to is dollars and cents,” said Zyburt.

Although partnering with private companies would take the burden away from police, Zyburt said he has budget concerns. Contracting with a private company doesn’t make sense, even if it would keep police officers on duty. Last year, Marquette County had only between 10 and 15 transports, he said.

Marquette has the largest hospital in the Upper Peninsula with psychiatric beds, so a lot of the time patients in that county are close to help. The need is not the same there as it is for smaller counties, St. John said.

Delta Force says its service is cheaper than police and that the company has successfully transported 105 voluntary patients in the past year, Barron said. Most of these transports were to the Lower Peninsula. 

In rural areas it might not be feasible to send two officers and a squad car on what could be a 10-hour round trip, Barron said. Plus, police officers usually end up doing it on overtime, costing even more. 

“We are probably just a little under half the cost of what police would be to do the same service,” said Barron. “We are definitely cheaper.”

An element of the legislation is that communities would decide if contracting with private companies makes sense, St. John said.

“For the counties that it might make sense for, it sure gives them other options,” he said. “For those it doesn’t make sense for, then they don’t need to do it.”