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Can new tactics on mental health crises improve law enforcement?

Feb 25, 2022 by AFP

In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Keweenaw County Sheriff Curt Pennala has been facing a serious problem — one that’s getting worse. To an increasing extent, law enforcement officers are being called to respond to mental health crises rather than public safety threats.

Last year, Keweenaw County officers arrived on the scene when a local man tried to end his own life by driving into a stand of trees at a speed of nearly 100 miles per hour. The man survived, received the care he needed, and was sent home with a “safety plan” after it was determined he was not a threat to himself.

But what was the cost — to this troubled man, to his family, to the taxpayers, and to all involved — of responding with public safety officers instead of mental health experts?

If crises could be addressed by qualified health professionals, or by a co-response team that partners health professionals and law enforcement, everyone involved would be better off.

In most states and communities, there’s no mechanism for this sort of approach. But in Michigan, thanks to the leadership of key legislators and activists from Americans for Prosperity and other civic organizations, that’s changing.

What led to this major step forward?

Americans for Prosperity-Michigan works with allies to build public support

AFP’s Michigan Policy Director, Diana Prichard, had heard the complaints from public safety officers that they were often being sent on calls that didn’t match up with their training in law enforcement. She was aware that a new approach, called “co-response,” was being tested in some communities around the country, and she saw the potential to make that possible in Michigan as well.

Prior to the start of Michigan’s 2021 budget debate, Prichard reached out to potential allies. If they worked together, it might be possible to empower Michigan communities with a better toolkit for responding to emergency calls. And in partnership with the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) and Community Mental Health Association of Michigan (CMH), a coalition came together.

AFP and its partners engaged in extensive public education about the benefits of co-response, including radio interviews, newspaper opinion pieces, and other media efforts.

Americans for Prosperity activists also met with numerous elected officials to inform them about this opportunity and to address questions and concerns. The active support of members of the law enforcement community was critical to making progress.

But without champions within the legislature, that effort could well have come up short.

Michigan legislators lead toward a solution

Prichard and her allies found a receptive audience among key legislators, including a few who were willing to lead from the inside.

Thanks to the tireless advocacy of Senators Rick Outman (R-Six Lakes) and Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit), as well as the support of their colleagues, the budget approved in 2021 included a one-time appropriation of $5 million for the Jail Diversion Fund.

This pilot program funds a co-response effort that enables mental health professionals to team up with law enforcement in the field, with priority given to Michigan’s underserved rural areas.

More recently, the annual budget proposed by Governor Gretchen Whitmer this year includes $15 million for grants to localities to establish and expand jail diversion programs in partnership with local law enforcement and behavioral health services providers.

While the overall budget proposal includes far too much wasteful spending and needs significant revision, this provision will help ensure that individuals with mental illness receive appropriate treatment.

Better options for law enforcement may mean safer communities

Thanks to this initiative, local sheriffs like Curt Pennala will have better options when dealing with mental health crises. Instead of using public safety officers to respond to every crisis, local officials will have a greater ability to address mental health issues before they become life threatening.

That’s better for the individuals involved, better for law enforcement, and better for the taxpayers who bear the financial burden.

Learn more about AFP’s effort to reform and improve policing.