News Article Details

Program aims at getting help for mentally ill

The Herald - 2/24/2017

Feb. 24--MERCER -- At the end of last year, Shenango Township police got a call from a home where a man with mental health issues was acting up.

"My officers that went there realized this person shouldn't be arrested, and the fellow wanted to go to the hospital," Police Chief Jason Newton told the Mercer County Criminal Justice Advisory Board Thursday.

"One of my officers transported this person to Sharon Regional hospital, kind of because he was acting out at home," Newton said.

Three hours later, police were called back to the same address. The man had returned home.

"They couldn't understand why he wasn't still at the hospital," Newton said. "My officer called the hospital and they explained to him that there was nothing they could do. They (hospital staff) couldn't understand why they took him to the hospital and their overall recommendation was to arrest the fellow."

Mercer County officials hope to eliminate that kind of disconnect with the implementation of Crisis Intervention Team training.

The training will be paid out of a $57,506 grant provided by the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency.

The training, which has yet to be set up, will teach police, ambulance personnel and other first-responders to deal with people exhibiting mental illness, calm them down and get them help without police having to arrest them.

The program also will require the cooperation of Sharon Regional Health System and agencies that provide services to the mentally ill so the person can get treatment and the police can get back on the streets, officials said. Dan Pustinger, district director for the PennsylvaniaBoard of Probation and Parole, said he has started talking to the hospital and providers.

"So far, everyone I've talked to has said, 'You're right, this is what we need to do,' " he said. "They understand that there is a problem."

The process now can be unwieldy for police and probation and parole officers. When they take someone to the hospital, they have to wait for a mental health delegate to assess the person and determine whether the person will be committed. That process can take hours, with the policeman or officer waiting at the hospital until a decision is made.

The CIT concept was developed in Memphis, Tenn., and elements are provided by the University of Memphis. Those elements are broad and individual communities tailor the program to suit their needs, said Mark Benedetto, Mercer County chief juvenile probation officer, adding that local experts will provide the training.

Research has shown the effectiveness of the CIT concept, Benedetto said.

"It has a ton of impact on police officer safety," he said. "It has reduced liability. It has improved communication."

The people who are CIT-certified will be given badges, lapel pins or some other identification markers to wear, and the people they encounter come to know the mark.

"You have people who are trained specifically to manage the mental health situation," Benedetto said. "They actually become known to the population of repeat offenders. Someone who is repeating and off their medication, as an example, has a problem, they've been involved in the system before. The police officer comes out, they know the police officer, they can talk them down a little bit, may be able to get them into a psych unit, into treatment, as opposed to putting them in jail."

The impact of people with mental health issues on the criminal justice system is profound.

"About 60 percent of the people in the county jail have mental health issues," said Lizette Olsen, executive director of AWARE, the county's domestic violence and rape crisis agency. "The jail is not actually supposed to be acting as a de facto mental health provider."

People having mental health episodes typically want help, Pustinger said.

"They know when they're slipping into crisis," he said. "Because they don't have other options, they start to act out. The first thing the family does -- they don't have any other resources -- they call the police officers."

Under the CIT concept, police would be able to take the person to the hospital or drop them off at counseling.

"It's no questions asked and it's a 10- or 15-minute process as opposed to an hours-long process," Pustinger said.

It takes five, eight-hour days of training for someone to be certified, which officials said they know will be tough on police departments. However, the training will be free.

"The benefits on the outside, once we go through this process, are definitely going to be beneficial to the departments in the long run," Benedetto said.

GRANT ELEMENTS

In addition to instituting a Crisis Intervention Team, Mercer County Criminal Justice Advisory Board plans to use a $57,506 state grant to:

-- Hire a part-time coordinator to develop the crisis intervention program, work with Penn State to collect criminal justice data and write a strategic plan for the board. Laura Leskovac has been hired at a salary of $14,000. She is a CJAB member through her position with Communities That Care.

-- Hired Penn State for data collection at a cost of $41,106.

-- Develop the strategic plan, which CJB will need to be eligible for grants from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency after Dec. 31.

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(c)2017 The Herald (Sharon,Pa)

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