Police Are the First to Respond to Mental Health Crises. They Shouldn’t Be

Some law enforcement officers around the country agree that they're spending disproportionate amounts of their time and money on mental health, when it's not their place to do so. "Philosophically, using law enforcement authority to arrest someone as a means to seek mental healthcare is just simply wrong," said Dave Mahoney, the sheriff of Madison, Wisconsin.

Mahoney, the sheriff of Madison, Wisconsin, said he's painfully aware of what happens when severely mental ill people get imprisoned. "Because they are in crisis, oftentimes they can't be housed with other individuals in my jail," he said. "Right now I don't have a medical unit, so where are they housed? They're housed in solitary confinement. Now you have an exacerbation of their existing conditions because you've taken them into custody in crisis and you locked them in a six by nine foot solitary confinement cell in hopes of protecting them. In fact, all you're doing is making the condition worse.”

About six years ago, Darron Hall, the sheriff of Nashville, investigated the top reasons why someone with mental illness was brought to his jail. The majority of people had warrants, like Calvin did. “Usually it was a warrant for something we asked them to do that we never should have asked,” he said: failure to report to probation, failure to go to court, or failure to be booked on charges.

If someone has a warrant, the officer has to arrest them, no matter what kind of mental health training they have. This year, Hall and his colleagues opened a facility for people with mental illness to go, instead of rebooking them on criminal charges. Low-level, misdemeanor charges would then be suspended and never make it into a person's record, as long as they complete a recommended course of treatment. “It’s our way of, over the next several years, flushing out our system,” Hall said.