Should law enforcement be responsible for transporting the mentally ill to institutions?

Zach Vance • Jan 16, 2018 at 10:52 PM

Should law enforcement be responsible for transporting the mentally ill to treatment facilities, even if that person did not commit a crime?

That’s what Carter County Sheriff Dexter Lunceford asked gubernatorial candidate Randy Boyd Tuesday during a law enforcement roundtable discussion Boyd hosted at the Carnegie Hotel.

Lunceford said his department, like many across the state, exhausts valuable time and resources in transporting innocent mentally ill people to various mental health institutions across the state, sometimes as far away as Chattanooga.

“We need to get out of the business of mental transports, period. What we’ve been asked to do is take people into custody that have not committed a crime. It’s just wrong,” Lunceford said.

State law says it’s the duty of the local sheriff to transport those with mental illnesses to institutions for emergency or nonemergency involuntary admission.

If the hospital or treatment facility is notified ahead of time about the transport, the sheriff or transporting officer must wait 1 hour and 45 minutes, or until the patient is evaluated, before leaving.

If the health care facility is not given prior notice, the sheriff or transporting officer has to remain for as long as it takes to complete the admission evaluation, per state law.

Cocke County Sheriff Armando Fontes told Boyd that mental transports are becoming more common in his county, with at least two or three required each week.

“Smaller agencies are really struggling because ... if you have four (deputies) working an entire county, you’re pulling one of your officers off their shift to do this mental health transport, which turns out to be a 3.5- to 4-hour trip,” Fontes said.

“What happens is these officers are taking these individuals to these (medical) facilities, and then they’re being reevaluated again. A lot of times, the doctors at the facility just send them right back.

“It’s stripping resources from us catastrophically, and it is a huge problem. We want to help. We care about the mental state of these people, but smaller agencies and other agencies that don’t have the resources, like our agency, it is a huge burden.”

Lunceford called it “aggravating” when his deputies have to drive to Johnson City just to transport a Carter County resident from Johnson City Medical Center across the street to Woodridge Hospital, but occasionally his deputies are required to transport mentally ill patients to Chattanooga, which can take between eight and 10 hours.

“It’s a problem and we understand it does need to be addressed, but I don’t think it should be the responsibility of law enforcement to take care of mental issues. We’re not trained. We should be called if you have an issue to do with criminal activity, (but) we should not be put in a position where we’re transporting people across the state of Tennessee,” Lunceford said.

“There are no other options. By state law, we’re required to do the transports. And these people have not committed a crime and we’re having to, sometimes against their will, handcuff them, which means you’ve got to use a certain amount of force to accomplish that.”

Citing personal experience, Clinton Police Chief Rick Scarbrough said some mentally ill patients transported against their will turn violent, and begin kicking out patrol car windows and tussling with officers.

While the mentally ill person might have been innocent to start, the transport can sometimes result in misdemeanor or felony charges, in addition to the department being held liable for injuries.

“We’re criminalizing the mentally disabled by making law enforcement have to transport them to the mental health institute,” Boyd said following the discussion, which included dozens of law enforcement officials from as far away as Cocke County and Clinton.

“When law enforcement has to transport them, they have to put them in a squad car, restrain them (and) handcuff them. They’ve done nothing wrong, and we’re treating them like criminals. That’s criminal on our part.”

Although a direct solution would require legislative action, Boyd mentioned the need for more mental health facilities in the Tri-Cities, even floating the idea of reopening Greene Valley Development Center in Greeneville.

Since taking office, Lunceford said mental health transports are becoming more frequent in his county, and subsequently, more deputies are removed from patrol duties to complete transports.

“It’s happened my whole term and even before. We closed several mental health facilities across the state of Tennessee, which did not help. So now, it’s fallen back on the sheriffs to do that, and by state law, we’re responsible for doing the transports. State law needs to change,” Lunceford said.

Boyd said he will continue campaigning in the Tri-Cities on Wednesday, making stops in Kingsport and Carter County.

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