Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw wants to fill a void in the mental health system that looks more and more dangerous every day. Mentally ill people who act out violently usually attract quick attention from police, but by then it’s often too late. How, Sheriff Bradshaw asked, can law enforcement prevent that violence before it happens?
His answer – creation of proactive crisis teams – is still not fully formed and not ready for the major financial investment he has requested. But it is a promising proposal.
Sheriff Bradshaw’s “prevention intervention teams” would consist of three-person teams of deputies, clinicians and case workers who would respond to reports of mentally unstable people acting erratically or talking about violent acts. The idea, he said in an interview, would be to identify and engage in a non-confrontational manner with people who could pose a threat.
Working off tips from a new hotline, the teams could steer to mental health services people who otherwise would go untreated. For others, a non-confrontational encounter with law enforcement might change their behavior and alert authorities to a potential threat. “It’s a prevention thing,” Sheriff Bradshaw said. “You can’t arrest your way out of this.”
The sheriff’s proposal has no apparent model or precedent. He wants to begin his experiment with five teams and has asked state legislators for $3 million. The response was a tentative offer of $100,000, and he admits that the program is “scalable.” Given the experimental nature, it makes sense to start smaller and build it up with money from the sheriff office’s $478 million budget. If it shows early results, he can make the case for sponsoring an expansion.
For the program to work well, however, the sheriff’s office must publicize its new hotline widely, yet filter out crank calls and irrelevant tips. Team members must be trained well enough to identify people who truly pose a threat. The teams must ensure that their presence calms situations, and that they do not put themselves in danger. Their efforts cannot serve to harass or stigmatize people. The hotline must either compliment or collaborate with the hotline of 211 Palm Beach/Treasure Coast, which already offers callers limited mental health services.
Many could avail themselves of the service. Thomas Kucharski, a psychology professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, pointed out that “very often family members are at their wit’s end. They don’t know where to go.” Indeed, just on Wednesday came reports that the parents of Jared Loughner, the mentally ill Arizona man who killed six people and gravely wounded U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in 2011, had been so worried about him that they took his shotgun, disabled his car and insisted that he get counseling, all to no avail.
Run correctly, a sheriff’s office crisis team could help many who feel similarly desperate about a mentally troubled relative, neighbor or friend. But with an issue so delicate and complex, it is best to start small and move slowly.
for The Post Editorial Board