It started as a passing idea in Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw’s mind: a team of sheriff’s office employees dedicated to preventing violent acts by the mentally ill. Now it’s not only an articulated plan, the Legislature has ponied up $1 million in seed money.
So Sheriff Bradshaw has his cash. Now he needs to quell the gathering worries about this new plan for dealing with the complex issue of mental illness on Palm Beach County’s streets.
Despite those concerns, Sheriff Bradshaw’s plan for crisis intervention teams deserves tentative support. It is a creative attempt to deal with a problem that is poorly addressed across the country, as recent mass shootings have underscored. The stakes are too great to discourage earnest efforts to improve how our community identifies and treats the violently mentally ill.
But the sheriff will have to make the case publicly that his team will alleviate concerns about privacy rights and the risk of harassment. His “prevention intervention” teams, comprised of deputies, clinicians and case workers, would respond to tips called in to a special hotline and establish contact with potentially unstable residents. The hope is to head off violence by offering people help before it is too late.
Given the program’s sensitive nature, it would have been better for the sheriff’s office to begin with money from its own $478 million budget. The program would have started on a small scale, and the sheriff would have dispelled any perception that it is a veiled money grab. Overall, the sheriff estimated to legislators that the costs of staffing five three-person teams and a hotline would be $3 million next year.
As it is, his program faces plenty of challenges. Local mental health experts told The Post’s Stacey Singer of their worry that the new unit could encroach on civil liberties, be a frequent target for hoaxes and complicate mental health outreach efforts already in place.
Sheriff Bradshaw says the teams will be trained to weed out bogus reports and to deal with the mentally ill in a non-confrontational manner. But the sheriff’s office’s deputies have a recent history of dealing with the mentally ill, and of resorting to deadly force in questionable situations. Again, it will be up to the sheriff to assure the public that this unit’s members are adequately trained to interact without escalating situations, harassing people or putting themselves in danger.
But given how often the sheriff’s office comes in contact with the mentally ill, it is encouraging to see the county’s top law enforcement officer active in the search for new solutions for getting help to those who need it most.
for The Post Editorial Board