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PROTECTIVE CUSTODY Helping those in crisis sooner

Omaha World-Herald - 11/27/2017

Two new ideas have been offered that could help people in mental health crisis avoid the risks of law enforcement intervention and ease the burden of mental health response on officers and taxpayers. These ideas from the City of Omaha and Douglas County are worth consideration.

The first proposal involves the authority to commit someone to emergency protective custody - compulsory, short-term mental health treatment for people considered a danger to themselves or others. Law enforcement officers exercise that power. The city and county are proposing that mental health practitioners also be given that authority.

The proposal, which is being discussed with legislators, would limit the authority to people licensed to practice medicine or psychology and to nurses with certification or specializations in mental health or a related field.

The second proposal is for the state to allow border cities, counties and towns to access available beds for emergency protective custody use across state lines. Iowa already allows this, but Nebraska officers can't take someone across state lines to access an available mental health bed.

The city and county should find a receptive audience among state senators across the state. Nearly every law enforcement agency faces waves of calls responding to people in mental health crisis. Omaha police officers filled out 1,193 forms from September 2014 to August 2015 indicating they had responded to a call involving someone they suspected was mentally ill. It also costs less to treat someone who is ill, rather than jail them.

Having professionally trained mental health practitioners weigh in before a person escalates to the point that a police response might be needed could build trust with providers and improve outcomes for patients and law enforcement officers.

Having access to more beds when local ones are full could help, as well. It's noteworthy that neither proposal appears to add much, if anything, to the state's costs.

City Councilman Pete Festersen worked on both ideas with County Board Chairwoman Mary Ann Borgeson. Proposals to push for the state law changes necessary passed the City Council and County Board with 7-0 votes.

Festersen told The World-Herald he had consulted Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer, mental health professionals and private philanthropists. It's clear that more needs to be done to address this complicated issue.

"The encouraging thing is there seems to be acknowledgment here .


. that this is the direction we need to be going," Festersen said.

These two steps, while far from a full solution to the challenges of helping those suffering mental health crises, will start a broader conversation about the issues involved and what can be done.

The Legislature would do well to encourage further debate.


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