Law enforcement officers are, too often, having to respond to mental health crises in Mississippi.
That was one of the messages witnesses sent to lawmakers during a House judicial committee hearing on mental health Tuesday at the state capitol.
The hearing could lead to proposals for new legislation in January.
“I do not know what the answer is. I do know that the system is broken,” said Calhoun County Sheriff and Mississippi Sheriff’s Association President Greg Pollan.
Pollan said that, while the rules are different in every county, he knows a lot about how things work statewide from his work at sheriffs’ conferences. He said mental patients are often left in county jails when “they shouldn’t be there” because there is nowhere else for them to go.
“My perspective on this is from a sheriff who runs a jail,” Pollan said. “It seems like we, as a general rule, are the mental health facilities in most counties, which is so unfortunate.”
Pollan said law enforcement, who are generally not qualified to be caring for mentally ill people long-term, face the same problems all across America.
“I think it’s ironic that the largest mental health facility in this country is a jail. Cook County Jail in Chicago has more mental patients than all of the others combined. So, it’s not a Calhoun County problem, it’s not even a Mississippi problem, it’s a national problem,” Pollan said.
Prentiss County Chancery Clerk Bubba Pounds said he can usually expect there to be someone who is mentally ill in the jail, a fact he wishes wasn’t the case.
“I don’t have anybody in jail right now, but I may by the time I leave this afternoon,” Pounds said.
In a hearing on crime in Jackson, before the same House committee last month, Hinds County Sheriff Tyree Jones voiced similar concerns, saying there are a number of people in jail who are awaiting their pre-trial mental health evaluations. He said of the many detainees who have awaited trial for as long as 10 years, with about half of those waiting for long periods having mental health problems.
Law enforcement concerns voiced Tuesday went beyond sheriffs and their deputies holding mentally ill people in jails. They also extended to police work.
“The mental health problem is one of the biggest hurdles that we deal with in law enforcement,” New Albany Police Chief Chris Robertson said.
Robertson said often when someone is having a mental health crisis, it can be dangerous or appear to be dangerous to others and “eventually it gets to the point where somebody calls law enforcement.” While there is some training available for his officers, Robertson said his department doesn’t have the resources of some others in the state. That makes it more difficult to cover the costs of training.
“We show up and try to deal with the situation the best we can. We’re trying to get more officers trained in the CIT, the Critical Incident Training. Currently, I have two,” Robertson said.
Robertson said the current situation doesn’t help law enforcement officers or the mentally ill. He said devoting resources to mental health could take that burden off law enforcement and also better serve those in crisis.
“Anything we can do to get more resources and another avenue for us as law enforcement to be able to help fix some of this, it would be better off, much better off, for them and for us,” Robertson said. “Without the resources, police in most communities, or law enforcement in most communities, are the stopgap measure and that’s just kind of how it is.”
Katherine Pannel, medical director for Right Track Medical Group, tested that inadequately trained law enforcement interacting with mentally ill people in crisis can cause disaster, and should be avoided whenever possible. One in four people shot by law enforcement between 2015 and 2020 had a mental illness, Panel said.
The International Bipolar Foundation cites similar statistics.
“While 74% of Americans have a favorable opinion of law enforcement, four out of five Americans still believe that mental health professionals should be the very first responders when there is a mental health crisis,” Pannel said. “We know that jails are not the place for patients with mental illness to be housed and treated. However, most mental patients are ending up in jails while in crisis.”
Panel also said that law enforcement officers spend a significant amount of their time dealing with mental health crises, something they are not trained for.
“I’m not placing any blame on our law enforcement. We’re all so thankful for the work they do, but most do not have mental health training and are so busy doing what they’re doing to keep our communities safe, that they just cannot continue to harbor the responsibility of having to take care of patients with mental illness. It’s not in the best interest of law enforcement or the patients,” Pannel said.
A number of witnesses, including Panel, addressed the recent creation of the 988 suicide and crisis lifeline.
“This is essentially the 911 of mental illness,” Panel said. “One of the main purposes of it was to reduce law enforcement involvement. As I alluded to before, prior to its launch we just didn’t have any other option other than to call 911.”
Mississippi Department of Mental Health Director Wendy Bailey said the state has two lifeline call centers. Last year, she said they fielded more than 11,000 calls. With the 988 lifeline in place, Bailey said they are expected more than 25,000 this year. She said the centers are doing well handling that volume. When someone calls 988, the system attempts to connect the caller with an in-state crisis line, before checking for open lines in other states. Bailey said Mississippi’s in-state answer rate is top 10 in the country.
Bailey also addressed another place mentally ill patients often go, other than county jails: state hospitals. She said this should be avoided as well, saving the beds in state hospitals for the patients most in need. She said ideally local hospitals would be able to handle most cases, discharging patients to outpatient facilities rather than moving them to a state hospital.
“I’m not going to sit here and tell you that you need more state hospital beds,” Bailey said, adding that community mental health centers should be the first point of contact in a crisis. “They’re the gatekeepers for individuals to make sure that they don’t have to have that higher level of care.”
Rep. Sam Creekmore, R-New Albany, was instrumental in putting the hearing together. Afterward, he said that many of the solutions need to come from the local level, with community mental health centers, but there are a number of things the state legislature can do to encourage positive change.
“I think we have a lot of the resources already here in the state of Mississippi, but they’re not all working together in concert, and to get that going will make a big difference,” Creekmore said. “You just can’t legislative everything and then follow it. I think one, just the attention we brought to it, and then two maybe we can implement some guidelines.”
Creekmore said there are a number of potential pieces of legislation that could be seen in the 2023 session, which begins in January.