Friday, July 25, 2014

Prosecutor Candidates Talk Mental Illness

Does the Kitsap prosecutor have a role to play in the county’s mental and behavioral health system? Yes, and it’s significant. We know, from talking to Kitsap police officers, that encounters between police and people suffering from mental illness and/or substance abuse are depressingly frequent. When dealing with a low-level arrest, the prosecutor has tremendous discretion in deciding how to handle the case so as to achieve the best possible result for those concerned; the police, the courts, the jails, the person arrested and the public. Essentially, this involves choosing whether to pursue punishment or treatment.

Because such decisions are so important, Islanders for Collaborative Policing and NAMI-Kitsap co-hosted a forum on July 17 to hear from candidates for the office of prosecutor. The candidates were asked to talk about issues concerning criminal justice, mental illness, and drug dependency. Over fifty people attended, including judges, city councilmembers, and police chiefs. Interestingly, of the questions and comments voiced by attendees, nearly all were on the topic of mental illness. There is clearly a great deal of community interest in how the prosecutor’s office can impact and improve the system for dealing with these problems.

Specifics. Each of the candidates—incumbent Russ Hauge and challengers Bruce Danielson, Tina Robinson, and Bob Scales—agreed that there are serious flaws in the way mentally ill people are handled in the criminal justice system. Three of the candidates—Hauge, Robinson and Scales—suggested that there has been too much of an emphasis on criminalization, and that more and better use of treatment/diversion options are needed. (According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, the number of seriously mentally ill people in prison and jail, nationwide, exceeds the number in state psychiatric hospitals ten-fold.)

Russ Hauge stated, unequivocally, that there are too many mentally ill people in jail. He mentioned his efforts to divert low-level drug addicts from jail to treatment, explaining “we can’t arrest our way [out of dealing with behavioral problems].” He discussed his enthusiastic support of a new crisis triage center (funded by the MIDD tax) as an alternative to incarceration. He stressed his strong relationship with law enforcement, his support of the new crisis intervention officer program, and the need for more sharing of information among police agencies and personnel to improve their response to people in crisis. He also supports state legislation that would shield some personal information in police databases from public record requests.

Bruce Danielson articulated his belief that increased police training and dedicated staff at the prosecutors’ office are needed for better mental health response. He suggested that adequate systems and services are already in place to properly handle mentally ill defendants, but are not being effectively utilized. He expressed doubts about the utility of either specialized courts or information sharing by law enforcement to better deal with criminal behavior associated with mental health problems.

Tina Robinson said she has “more questions than answers” regarding mental health issues, but assures that she’s committed to working with agencies serving the mentally ill, as well as their parents and caregivers. She expressed concern about neighborhoods being “terrorized” by mentally ill individuals. She also expressed an interest in seeing more treatment options made available, such as civil commitment laws that would lower the threshold for mandatory treatment. She supports the creation of a court advocate to assist defendants with mental health issues, similar to existing domestic violence advocates.

Bob Scales talked about his support for a pre-booking diversion program in Seattle (called LEAD), and suggested it could be a model for working with people with behavioral health problems in Kitsap County. (LEAD is a privately funded program that allows police to redirect low-level drug offenders to community-based services instead of jail and prosecution.) He described the prosecutor’s role as an advocate who “breaks down barriers” and pledged to promote private/public partnerships around mental health issues. He also mentioned his interest in crime prevention, citing his support for a state law banning gun possession by people who have previously been involuntarily committed for mental health treatment.

ICP is not endorsing any of the candidates at this point, but we are watching the race with considerable interest. We will follow up with more specific questions for remaining candidates after the primary election.

Monday, July 14, 2014

July Events

Mark your calendars for two events this month that will explore how law enforcement can best respond when dealing with issues of mental illness in the community. This Thursday, July 17, ICP and NAMI-Kitsap are holding a pre-election forum at the Bainbridge Island Waterfront Center (370 Brien Drive) featuring all four candidates for County Prosecutor. Event time 5pm to 6:30pm. The focus of this event is on how people afflicted with mental health and drug dependency issues are handled in the criminal justice system-and how the prosecutor can improve outcomes in this area. (If you miss this event, a second forum for prosecutor candidates organized by the municipal court will be held on July 29.) 

The second program will be a public introduction to the new Crisis Intervention Officers appointed throughout Kitsap County.   This event will be held at Poulsbo City Hall on Wednesday, July 30, from 3:00 to 4:30 pm., and is jointly sponsored by ICP, NAMI-Kitsap, the Bremerton Police Department, the Poulsbo Police Department, and the Kitsap Vulnerable Adult Task Force.  ICP has been working with Kitsap law enforcement for some time to get this program off the ground, and we are very pleased to be a part of this public introduction.  The new CIO's will talk about crisis response, community partnerships, and how police response to mental illness is being coordinated across the County.

Good Developments, Unfinished Business

It's been a year now since Matt Hamner became the Chief of BIPD, and local papers have done a great job highlighting his successes. Much praise is due to the Chief for his assigning priority to community relations, and we're particularly pleased that he has reinvigorated the bike patrol program, worked with the Civil Service Commission to improve the police hiring process, emphasized youth outreach, and has joined other Kitsap County police departments by appointing a crisis intervention officer. These advances are all in keeping with ideas and recommendations that ICP has been advocating since its inception.

Two years ago, ICP assembled a group of citizens to discuss a history of poor relations between our community and police department, and to develop ideas for alleviating this problem.  It is most gratifying to see so many of our recommendations now being realized. We wish to thank the many people who participated in our "Citizens' Committee" and who contributed so much toward shaping the positive changes we now are seeing.  

ICP's current focus is to assist Chief Hamner with a few items of unfinished business.  Paramount among these is the creation of a civilian police commission to compliment police reforms and improved police/community relations. There is, at the moment, no public forum where community members can comment on police services or make suggestions for improvement. There is no forum where our representatives on council can consider and investigate police policy ideas. ICP thinks this kind of city committee is essential for the long term success of the BIPD, along with improvements to the BIPD's complaint processing system. The topic will be taken up by City Council on July 28.