Saturday April 6, 2013

Ask any officer on the street and he or she will probably tell you that many of the people they encounter in the line of duty require mental health attention. Those same officers might also tell you that cramming them into the judicial system not only is a disservice to them, it also overwhelms the courts that should be focused on keeping serious criminals off the streets.

"These are the same things we have been dealing with for the last 25 years," said Brattleboro Police Chief Gene Wrinn.

Even though police officers have become de facto social workers, their primary responsibility is "to stop the behavior and protect the person and the public."

As even the most level-headed of us all know, a strong-armed, "my-way-or-the-highway" approach that is unfortunately all too prevalent in law enforcement today, is not the best way to de-escalate a situation.

We are fortunate in this part of the state that our law enforcement agents are relatively enlightened, compared to other corners of the nation, but they are still coming at their duties from a law enforcement perspective.

We are also fortunate that we have organizations such as Health Care and Rehabilitation Services that have put social workers in police departments in Windsor and Windham counties. But as any officer or mental health professional can surely tell you, it’s still not enough.

"The only way to effectively support people is by developing the appropriate linkages and connections for them," said George Karabakakis, HCRS’ chief operating officer.

But it’s a well-known fact that social service and law enforcement agencies are overwhelmed by the need for mental health treatment in our communities, around the country. Windham County is no different.

The Legislature is attempting to address that situation and recently passed Act 79. The precipitating event to the legislation was Tropical Storm Irene, which in August 2011 washed out the Vermont State Hospital, where patients with acute mental health issues who were a danger to others or themselves were treated.

Act 79 hopes to reform the state’s mental health system and provide care in the home communities of people who need help.

Irene also forced the state to face up to the fact that even before the storm it didn’t have enough treatment beds for those in dire need of help. If it wasn’t bad enough before the floods, it got much worse after.

Now, people who need inpatient care end up in hospital emergency rooms for one, two or even six days, as in one recent local case watched over by deputies from the Windham County Sheriff’s Department, waiting for a bed at an institution such as the Brattleboro Retreat.

Those circumstances aren’t good for anyone, said Sheriff Keith Clark.

"When we are watching people at an ER, it is not therapeutic and not for the benefit of the patient. It puts our deputies in a difficult position of balancing who they are there to protect -- the staff, the patient or the public."

Clark, who is the president of the Vermont Sheriff’s Association, said law enforcement agents around the state know the situation demands they be more than just armed guards.

"These people are patients. They are not prisoners. They need treatment and we should be a therapeutic part of that process."

Clark represents the leading edge of compassion and understanding in law enforcement. Not all people with a badge are as enlightened, but many of them realize it’s not just about law and order, it’s also about serving and protecting. And to do that right, it often means they have to exercise patience and have some empathy for the people they encounter.

We know it’s not always that simple, but we also know that the best way to end a downward trending spiral is not jail, it’s treatment. Finding treatment, connecting people with the needed services, is what Act 79 is all about.

Working with organizations such as HCRS, Youth Services, the Retreat, the local hospitals and Turning Point, law enforcement agents can get help to people in trouble. But they need more than that. They need support from the Legislature to adequately fund social services, get more health care professionals on the streets and open more inpatient beds around the state.

And we all know that takes money.

In these tough economic times it may be hard to justify these expenditures, but in the long run it saves us all money, time, heartache and frustration.

After all, what price do we put on the mental well being of our community and our neighbors, friends and family?

We venture a guess that it’s a price worth paying.