Photo by Visitor7/Wikimedia

Photo by Visitor7/Wikimedia

Program before lawmakers could strengthen mental health crisis response

The aim is to provide those in need with services instead of jail time.

A proposed pilot project would partner mental health professionals and local law enforcement officers on calls that involve a mental health crisis.

HB 2892 would create a grant from the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs to fund services from mental health professionals who would either go with police officers on calls or respond to scenes when requested. The bill was voted out of the House Public Safety Committee and advanced to the rules committee on last Thursday, Feb. 1.

“Our current system works, but I think it is a system that can be expensive and at times ineffective,” said Representative John Lovick, D-Snohomish, the bill’s prime sponsor. “Jails are not designed to be mental health treatment centers.”

Lovick said he brought the bill before lawmakers when he saw a similar program in action in Edmonds while he was volunteering at the Edmonds Gospel Mission. He said having a mental health professional on the scene can better serve someone in a crisis.

The legislation’s aim, he said, is to improve the initial law enforcement interaction with people in a crisis, increase bystander and officer safety, and connect those who need it with mental health services instead of jail.

“Somebody in a mental health crisis is not in and of themselves, by virtue of their crisis, committing a crime, but our system continues to send law enforcement officers as its only response,” said James McMahan, policy director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.

He said that the bill would require the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs to provide a study of the grant program’s effectiveness to make sure it works. He said that could establish a foundation on which to build future response teams.

“We see cities as policy innovation mechanisms, as agents,” said Logan Bahr, government relations advocate for the Association of Washington Cities. “This is a great marriage between the state and locals in responding to the needs of our communities.”

Partnerships with mental health professionals have already proven effective. McMahan explained two working models: the Seattle model, in which a professional is in the passenger seat of a patrol vehicle, and the navigator model, in which a mental health professional goes to a scene on their own upon request of an officer who is already there.

“The most critical point in this program is to have the mental health professional there on scene in that moment of crisis,” McMahan said.

Karl Hatton, regional emergency communications director for Jefferson and Clallam counties, said 911 operators should be included in the program because they have the best sense of who needs to respond to a scene. He also said that ongoing training for 911 operators should be included in the bill’s language so they know how to best respond as the first point of contact.

Lovick said he is seeking at least a couple million dollars for the grant and hopes to implement at least one project on each side of the state. The funding could come from a small surcharge on traffic citations. However, the funding won’t be determined until the bill reaches the appropriations committee.

The bill was introduced late in the session, but Lovick is optimistic that it will pass this year.

“If we do it, it’s going to be done this year,” he said. “This is really a time to bring the community together to see what we can do to work with the vulnerable population.”

Chair of the House Public Safety Committee Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, sponsored a similar bill, HB 2234, which has a companion bill in the Senate, SB 5970, sponsored by Senator David Frockt, D-Kenmore.

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