TPD unit says mentally ill need help, not handcuffs - Tucson News Now

TPD unit says mentally ill need help, not handcuffs

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TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) -

The January 8th mass shooting brought the issue of finding appropriate health care for the mentally ill right to the door step of the Pima County Sheriff's Office and the Tucson Police Department.

Following Pima County's footsteps, Tucson Police have now launched a unit that will serve as a mental health support network for officers, people in the community, and health care providers.

It's a first of a kind unit for the department.  The goal is to eventually expand the unit to include all local law enforcement agencies in the area, treatment specialists, and mental health court staff as well.

"Roughly a third of our calls involve mentally ill individuals,"  said Tucson Police Chief Roberto Villasenor during a press conference earlier this year.

Villasenor went on to say the department handled approximately 3,200 calls for help from those who were mentally unstable.  Calls in which officers came face to face with someone who needed help, not handcuffs.  They are situations that can quickly escalate, and get out of control. 

Some have led to suspects barricading themselves in homes, others have led to police-involved shootings, and in extreme cases, mass shootings, like the one on January 8th, 2011 outside the Safeway grocery store in Northwest Tucson.

FBI statistics indicate nearly two-thirds of all mass shootings involved a suspect who suffered from a mental illness.  Jared Loughner, the man who is now spending life behind bars for the mass shooting in Tucson, was diagnosed with Schizophrenia according to court documents.

"We get somebody into treatment, we can potentially abate the criminal activity," said Captain Paul Sayre, who will be heading up TPD's new crisis response unit.

When responding to mentally ill subjects, police used to take them to the county jail.  Now, thanks to new laws and the Crisis Response Center in Tucson, police can transport them to the hospital where they can get help and treatment.

"The big thing is we're really trying to steer people into treatment," said Sayre.

Tucson's mental health unit will be similar to PCSO's.  The department re-assigned staff members into the new positions.

The unit will include a Captain, a Sergeant, a detective, and two officers.

Captain Sayre said their ultimate goal was to have 20% of their officers in every shift go through specialized Crisis Intervention Training, that meant each shift would have 80 officers on hand, to handle crisis calls involving mentally unstable individuals."

Sayre said January 8th was a wake up call for law enforcement officers throughout Southern Arizona.

"I think in an ideal world we would have been able to work with treatment providers to know that Jared Loughner presented a risk to the community, and get him into treatment.  I think it's very possible that event might not have happened," said Sayre.

With the Crisis Response Center now running, police say they can drop off a person for evaluation and treatment and be back out on the street handling calls, within 15 minutes.

Police say handling calls involving mentally unstable individuals can be time consuming, dangerous, and challenging.

"That's what's frustrating because the officers don't know what to do for the person. There really isn't a whole lot other than they need medical help here.  As police officers we are problem solvers.  We solve problems, and what's frustrating is we can't solve this problem.  It is a medical issue for somebody who needs help.  We're not medical clinicians.  That's what's frustrating," said Sayre.

Police said state lawmaker Victoria Steele had been instrumental in advocating for laws supporting treatment for the mentally ill.  We reached out to Steele's office for a comment. 

Steele released this statement to Tucson News Now: "As a Licensed Professional Counselor and a State Legislator I'm very aware of the critical need for law enforcement, the behavioral health community and the courts to be able to work together to meet the needs of people who are suffering from mental illness.

Law enforcement officers and other first responders frequently see people who are experiencing mental health issues and sometimes they become involved in the criminal justice system because they have untreated mental health or addiction issues. The Mental Health Investigative Support Team unit is crucial because it brings together law enforcement, the behavioral health community and the courts to identify someone who's behaviors may be caused by mental illness and get them the appropriate treatment they need.

If you or someone you know needs help, call (520) 622-6000 or 800-796-6762. Phone lines are open 24 hours a day.

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