Police are on front lines in dealing with behavioral health issues

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Across the country, thousands of people facing behavioral health issues end up in prisons and jails. But they often encounter law enforcement officials before that happens.

During his many years on patrol, Lt. Shane Briscoe with the Las Cruces Police Department has been dealing with behavioral health issues. He says there are four common groups.

“The ones that we deal with are depression, bipolar disorders, schizophrenic disorder, a combination of schizophrenia and bipolar — those are the categories that we really deal with,” says Briscoe.

Briscoe says LCPD is always evaluating whether the best tactics have been used. But he says the law enforcement community is constantly hitting the reset button in building new relationships with behavioral health providers.

“If it’s a change in administration it’s as if we almost have to start from square one in dealing with them again. We dealt with Southwest Counseling, there was a change there, and there are new providers that come into the area,” says Briscoe.

He also says with new providers coming to the area, it’s important to establish a relationship.

“Every time there’s turnover or change, we certainly have to make contact with them, talk about basically the rules that we’ll abide by, what we’re required to do by law and to just figure out a way to work together to resolve problems,” Briscoe says.

Many people experiencing behavioral health problems end up in prisons and jails instead of mental health facilities.

Through a records request, KRWG News found that in Doña Ana County in 2016 there were 11,081 inmates booked into the county detention center. During that same time there were 56,739 instances in which inmates received required behavioral health services. Substance abuse services were required 10,417 times.

Nationwide, prisons and jails are facing the burden of treating behavioral health. According to a 2006 study by the U.S. Department of Justice, 64 percent of local jail inmates, 56 percent of state prisoners, and 45 percent of inmates in federal prisons have symptoms of serious mental illness.

Deputy Jamar Cotton with the Doña Ana County Sheriff’s Office says he sees people who may be struggling with behavioral health issues regularly. He shares a story from a recent incident.

“While we are on a traffic stop, this lady is walking down the street, down Picacho, and I noticed that she didn’t have any shoes,” says Cotton.

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Deputy Cotton asked the woman if she was OK. The woman told him she was heading to a local restaurant miles away.

“I told her, “You are going the wrong way, you are not anywhere close to where you want to be at.” So talking to her more… she starts to outburst and cry,” says Cotton.

Cotton said the woman then appeared to have different conversations going, as if she seemed to have multiple personalities. She told him she was pregnant; later he found out that wasn’t true. Then the woman took off and ran into traffic. He pursued and brought her back to his patrol car.

She later told him she was taking medication for behavioral health issues.

“She told me that she took medication for depression and anxiety,” says Cotton.

Cotton started his investigation into the woman’s situation and found out she was a missing person.

“She had been reported missing at six o’clock that morning,” Cotton says.

He was able to eventually contact the 21-year old woman’s mother, who explained to him her daughter’s behavioral health issues.

Cotton says being compassionate is key to any situation.

“You don’t want to escalate it. You want to de-escalate it and bring them down,” he says, adding that he is constantly working against the perception of law enforcement with guns and a badge to let people know he’s there to help.

“I try to keep a calm demeanor, and try to figure out what’s going on with them, reassure them why I’m there,” says Cotton.

One thing Briscoe says could greatly help the community is having an operational crisis triage center. The county center has been sitting empty for years. It was built, but has never been used. Briscoe says he was involved with talks about the need for the triage center years ago.

“There’s been a lot of talk in the past years about a crisis triage center and it being available for law enforcement as a means to almost circumvent the need for response to our two emergency room,” Briscoe says. “That, if it ever came to fruition, I think, would be a great help.”

A great help for law enforcement and, advocates say, the entire community.

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