Cowlitz County police and mental health service providers are concerned a new state law that aims to make police and suspect interactions safer will lead to more people in jail with behavioral health problems.
The law does not prevent police from responding to calls involving people experiencing a mental health crisis, but it limits when they can take someone to the hospital or a treatment facility against their will for evaluation.
Some police departments initially misinterpreted directions in House Bill 1310, signed into law this spring, as preventing them from responding to any mental health calls, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington.
Longview and Kelso police chiefs said they still are responding to crisis calls, but what they can do once they arrive has changed.
Mental health organizations operating crisis response teams often rely on police to take people who are a danger to themselves or others to the hospital. Some behavioral health leaders are concerned the changes in the law will lead to people not getting the help they need.
“I think the unintended consequence is we see people going to jail more often because we’ve lost the ability to intervene with people sooner,” said Jessica Shook, crisis manager for Olympic Health and Recovery Services. “They end up in jail and that’s not the place for them.”
Crisis response in Cowlitz County
Columbia Wellness has provided mobile crisis team services and a crisis line in Cowlitz County since the late 1980s, Chief Executive Officer Drew McDaniel said. The organization operates a phone line for anyone to call 24/7 and trained behavioral health responders to respond in-person.
When the crisis responders go somewhere like an individual’s home that’s not a secure location, they often call law enforcement as backup, McDaniel said.
“The history and current practice with our local law enforcement rests upon a spoken and unspoken agreement … let’s respond in partnership,” he said. “Even with this new legislation … we agree in Cowlitz and Grays Harbor counties that we will continue to honor that.”
When an individual in crisis refuses to go to the hospital or other treatment, the Columbia Wellness crisis team hands off the case to a designated crisis responder.
Under state law, the designated responders have legal authority to take someone who is a danger to themselves or others to the hospital or a treatment facility for an evaluation against their will. Law enforcement also has this authority, but the circumstances of when they can detain someone have changed.
Olympic Health and Recovery Services, based in Olympia, contracts with the regional behavioral health organization to provide designated crisis responders to Cowlitz, Grays Harbor, Lewis, Wahkiakum and Pacific counties.
Shook, the crisis manager for Olympic Health, said although designated responders have the authority to bring people in for evaluation, they don’t have the physical ability or training to “put hands on people” and take them when they don’t want to go.
Prior to the new law, crisis responders would work with law enforcement to get people to the hospital when needed. If officers were on the scene first, they would take someone in and then call a designated crisis responder for evaluation.
“In most places, none of those things are happening anymore,” Shook said. “If law enforcement is not able to assist and accompany us, we simply cannot go and that’s really awful.”
In Cowlitz County, most referrals for an evaluation came from the jail and hospital but Olympic Health does get “a fair number” from the community, Shook said.
The number of assessments Olympic Health responders have done has decreased since police agencies began changing their policies in early June, Shook said. The agency has received fewer referrals from the community and more from the jail, she said.
Shook said the responders are still detaining people, but they aren’t able to reach everyone. If they aren’t able to bring someone to the hospital or to treatment, they try to provide as much support to the family as possible and follow up, she said.
“We maintain that contact so we’re not just walking away, but our hands are really pretty tied in these situations,” Shook said. “Making decisions on who we can help and who we can’t is heartbreaking.”
Changes to police response
Kelso Police Chief Darr Kirk said Wednesday his officers will still back up a crisis responder or other mental health worker who goes out to a crisis call. However, under the new law, police can’t take on most of the mental health calls alone, and the new law directs them to leave the area if no crime is being committed, Kirk said.
“If they (crisis responders) can’t or won’t come, we’ll leave because the legislation believes strongly that we’ll make it worse and there will be a bad outcome,” he said.
According to the ACLU of Washington, the legislation included those directions in response to incidents of police violence against people not committing a crime or who were killed while in crisis and needing help.
Kirk said one of the biggest changes in the law directing when officers can use force to take someone to the hospital is that they can no longer take what others saw or heard into consideration. Police now have to witness that someone is an imminent danger to themselves or others firsthand, he said.
When police had to take someone to the hospital, they usually would just coax them into the car, Kirk said. But occasionally on the way, the person would decide they didn’t want to go and act out, so the officer would have to pull over and handcuff them, he said.
Kirk said if an officer tried to take someone to the hospital now and a similar situation happened, the officer would be at risk of decertification for using force not permitted under the new law.
“Over the years, we’ve tried to do right by these clients and get them to St. John,” Kirk said. “With the new law, the risk is just far too great to go out on a limb.”
Longview Police Chief Robert Huhta said there has been a decrease in the number of people police have taken to the hospital in the last few weeks. Departments are trying to identify different solutions on how to help people they can no longer bring to the hospital, he said.
Bridging the gaps
Huhta said the police department’s new agreement with Columbia Wellness to place mental health professionals in the department hopefully will balance some of the new use of force law’s negative effects.
In July, the Longview City Council approved the contract to allow two mental health professionals to work full time on the behavioral health calls that come through the department. The Columbia Wellness employees started their new positions this past week, Huhta said.
The contract is the first step in a larger plan to bring mental health workers into police departments countywide.
“The timing of it for us is perfect to try to bridge those gaps in services that are definitely evident because of this new legislation,” Huhta said.
Huhta said the Columbia Wellness employees take calls and go out on calls with officers and can connect individuals with mobile crisis or other resources in the community.
The police agencies expect the program will reduce the burden on first responders, the emergency department and reduce jail and court use.
Kirk said he’s hopeful the teams will help alleviate crisis calls that would have required the person be taken for involuntary treatment.
The police chiefs said they hope there will be some changes to the law to make it easier for officers to respond to mental health calls.
Shook, with Olympic Health, said she’s talked to mental health organizations statewide about the law as the president of the Washington Association of Designated Crisis Responders. She said there’s been “a lot of hope for change” to the legislation to clarify situations when law enforcement is supporting behavioral health workers, rather than leading the interaction.
Law enforcement and crisis responders don’t intend for people to not receive help, but are trapped in an unintended position, she said.