BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Just how should a police officer handle someone who is mentally ill? Sometimes the answer to that can be tricky. When Earl K. Long hospital closed its doors in 2013, the city also lost a mental health emergency room. That facility, equipped to handle the unique demands of mental illness, provided a gateway for long term help.
Now, those patients often wind up in a standard ER or jail.
"We're really tossing these people out on the curb and not getting them no help, and that's a big travesty," said Zachary Police Chief David McDavid.
Like other agencies, McDavid says his officers encounter someone with mental health issues nearly every day.
The East Baton Rouge Prison Warden says 40 to 50 percent of inmates suffer from mental health problems. EBR Parish Coroner Dr. Beau Clark says his office handles nearly three times as many mental health cases as it does death cases.
"We've almost re-institutionalized them because many mental health patients end up in our prisons," said Clark. "Obviously, a prison and our mental health hospital are two different things."
Now, local law enforcement is looking for a better way. Wednesday, the International Association of Chiefs of Police hosted a One Mind Symposium in Baton Rouge. The day long symposium helps agencies better handle and help those with mental illness. It starts by connecting law enforcement with mental health experts in their own community.
"We cannot arrest our way out of some of the challenges we have. If a person has mental illness, we want to make sure they are getting the treatment that they need," said organizer and IACP Fellow, Bryant McCray. The program also encourages intensive crisis intervention training for officers, something the Capital Area Human Services District (CAHSD) already provides for local agencies.
"Helps to keep them safe, to know when to back off a little, know when to take a little more time before they respond so they know what they're dealing with," said CAHSD executive director, Dr. Jan Kasofsky.
The symposium includes a four-step pledge that agencies can use as a guide. The pledge includes connecting with local mental health resources, developing agency policies for officers to follow, and setting a goal that all officers receive some type of mental health training. However, even with the training, both law enforcement and mental health officials say the metro area still needs a facility where the mentally ill can get the help and healing they need.
"It was proven here in Baton Rouge back when Earl K. Long had their mental health emergency room," said Clark. "We need to recreate something we had previously. It went away for the reasons it went away, but it's very necessary for our community."