Fifty Years of Failure: Mental illness crisis places law enforcement on front lines

Fifty Years of Failure: Mental illness crisis places law enforcement on front lines

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - American society no longer locks up its mentally ill citizens in hospitals and mental institutions. Instead, many people suffering from mental illness are locked up in prisons and jails.

"Fifty years of failed mental health policy have placed law enforcement on the front lines of mental illness crisis response and turned jails and prisons into the new asylums," the Treatment Advocacy Center said in its report Criminalization of Mental Illness.

Retired Master Sgt. Lefford Fate said it's important for law enforcement officers to try to talk down someone who's going through a crisis before the confrontation gets physical.

"If there is a way to de-escalate that crisis, if there's a way to calm a person down and get them into some type of treatment before it goes out of whack, then there's a much better outcome," he said.

Fate worked as a mental health counselor for more than two decades in the United States Air Force. Last November he spoke at TEDxCharleston on Correcting Corrections: Why I am in Prison.

"Every law enforcement officer should have some training," he said. Fate said 1 in 10 law enforcement encounters involves someone suffering from mental illness.

"We're asking our law enforcement to make a split-second decision. Then we're judging them afterward," he said. "We need to train them up front to have the proper tools to keep themselves safe. It saves money. It saves time and it saves lives."

"It costs way more to incarcerate someone, have them in jails and in prison and then treating that person when they're in jails and prison," he said. "There's a quick decision a correctional officer has to make: Is this person being disruptive? Or is this person not able to understand? That's a hard decision to make in a split second."

"It is working, but the numbers are not where they need to be," he said. Fate said all law enforcement officers should have the training so that possibly someone can be prevented from making a criminal act that warrants arrest.

"If we don't take care of that person inside the institution -- I want to stop them from coming in anyway -- but if we can't, we have to be able to treat them and make them better for when they go out. Some aren't bad people. They just make bad decisions."

Fate said we, as individuals, can prevent someone from acting out by getting them the help they need beforehand.

"If you see it, report it," Fate said. "It's not going to hurt the person. Report it. If you don't report it and they kill somebody, they kill themselves, then we'd say, 'We wish we would have.'"


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