On any given day, local police reports show arrests for things like public intoxication, disorderly conduct and domestic disputes. While some may have committed crimes, many are jailed as a direct result of mental illness.
That isn't an acceptable solution, Statesboro police Chief Mike Broadhead said Monday night as he spoke to the Statesboro chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI.
When people encounter problems with the mentally ill, often the first reaction is to call police. But when the real issue is a person in crisis, needing help with mental illness, handcuffs and jail cells only make things worse. When a mentally ill person is jailed instead of taken somewhere for help, the problem multiplies, causing trouble for both the person arrested as well as jail staff, Broadhead said.
Training can help ease the friction between officers and mentally ill subjects. Broadhead spoke of crisis intervention training, or CIT, which many Statesboro police officers have completed. So far, about two dozen officers have finished the 40-hour course, and the chief hopes to host another class in February, where he plans to have at least 10 more officers trained.
"We are planning to get all street officers through … CIT, which is specific to dealing with seriously mentally ill people," he told the Statesboro Herald before speaking at the NAMI meeting. "Several have already attended, but we intend to continue until all have received the training."
The training includes interaction with others acting as mentally ill and creating scenarios in which officers encounter situations that call for dealing with someone having mental or substance abuse problems.
Local agencies that handle mental illness and addiction counseling have stepped forward to help get officers trained to handle those with mental illness.
"We have had Pineland (Mental Health and Rehabilitation) and Willingway (Hospital) come to our in-service training over the past few months to talk to the officers about local issues … related to mental health and substance abuse," Broadhead said. "These are, of course, typically co-occurring issues."
Statesboro police officers, like any other law enforcement agents, encounter mentally ill people "constantly," he said. Faced with an unruly person who may even be disoriented and confused, officers' choices are slim. If the person is a danger to themselves or others, he or she can be arrested, but the problem isn't solved.
"Mentally ill people need to be treated in a hospital, and their issues should be treated like medical problems," he said.
Instead of jail
Additional resources are needed not just in Bulloch County, but everywhere, Broadhead said during the meeting.
"No beds (in treatment facilities) is a problem," he said.
When police encounter a mentally ill person who has not committed a crime, there isn't any way to force them to get help. They can suggest going to a hospital, and often the person in question does agree to be evaluated.
But if a local emergency room doctor chooses to have a person sent to a mental hospital, they must often wait until a bed is available somewhere, many times in another town. And if the patient becomes unruly, they are likely to end up in a jail cell anyway, he said.
The problem is more common than many think.
"Fifty-five percent of all people will experience mental problems in the next 12 months," he said, adding that many people who suffer mental illness are "productive people," and their issues often remain hidden.
Things like accountability courts are helpful in dealing with the mentally ill and those suffering from addiction, which often go hand in hand, he said, as many people with mental issues "self-medicate" in efforts to ease their stress. The CIT courses are yet another tool to help law enforcement deal with the matter, but "we need more resources, more beds," he said.
"We have to understand all our resources and cross-pollenate," Broadhead said.
But when will the answers come to stop sending the mentally ill to jail?
"It will happen when the community says 'enough,'" he said.
Bulloch County sheriff's Capt. Kenny Thompson, who also attended the NAMI meeting, spoke during the meeting as well. He said Bulloch County Sheriff Noel Brown plans to have all sheriff's deputies and jailers trained in CIT.
Thompson deals with the Bulloch County Jail on a daily basis and said he sees firsthand the problems that arise when mentally ill people are jailed.
"Thirty percent of the people in jail are mentally ill," he said. "Jail is not the place for these people to be."
Some suffering from severe mental illness remain in jail untreated "for days" while efforts are made to find them appropriate help, he said.
"Resources in southeast Georgia are not a lot to go on," he said.
Another issue: Reaction
Broadhead also spoke of recent training trends that could pose a higher risk of mentally ill persons being killed by police responding to volatile situations.
Law enforcement officers being trained that their main responsibility is "to return home safely" is wrong, he said. "That leads to unnecessary killing."
A police officer's job is "to help people" and "lay their lives on the line" just as "we expect our military" to do, he said. "Lethal force is necessary, but we can't be quick on the draw."
Training officers to recognize mental illness, to have compassion and understanding in dealing with the mentally ill, and taking "another two seconds" to asses a situation can save lives, according to Broadhead.
"We are trying to fix (the way officers are currently trained), but it is a process," he said.
The NAMI meeting was held at the Statesboro Regional Library, with representatives from various local mental health and support groups attending. Bulloch County Superior Court Judge Michael Muldrew and several Georgia Southern University psychiatric nursing students also attended.
For more information about NAMI, call (912) 587-2090 or (912) 536-4448; email NAMI.Statesboro.Ga@gmail.com; or visit the NAMI Statesboro Facebook page online.
Broadhead may be reached at (912) 764-9911.
Herald reporter Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 489-9414.