Leah Schnyders: Davis County program helps police and the mentally ill

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Homeless individuals camp out on the streets of downtown Salt Lake City on Wednesday, August 12, 2020. Racial minorities are more likely to face homelessness in Salt Lake County than white people are, a new analysis of homeless system data shows.

The nationwide unrest over police brutality can be disheartening. But it doesn’t encapsulate the whole picture of how police departments are trying to improve.

Right here in Utah, the Davis County Health Department has partnered with law enforcement to offer an alternative response to mental health and substance abuse concerns. Many police officers desire to effectively respond but have not received sufficient training.

While the need for training exists, the decriminalization of mental health and substance abuse cannot be overlooked. Davis County is ensuring that these issues are treated as health concerns first, rather than jumping to prosecute.

Many individuals who suffer from mental health issues or substance abuse fear receiving assistance due to the likelihood of police response or involvement. Fears of imprisonment, bail and high medical costs are often substantiated, which exacerbates the issue.

Is the law enforcement response correct? In many cases, it isn’t — and police departments are beginning to notice. To rebuild trust in the community — especially those suffering from mental health or substance abuse issues — Davis County responded with the creation of the Davis County Receiving Center.

Opened in December 2019, the Davis County Receiving Center provides 24/7 response to individuals suffering from substance abuse and mental health concerns. Instead of bringing people to jail, police have the option to bring them to the center. Upon arrival, each person is immediately screened for health concerns, suicidal tendencies and behavioral issues. After this, the individual begins treatment under the care and supervision of the center’s trained medical professionals, counselors and staff.

This proactive model of rehabilitation has already impacted the lives of many, including Kevin Kingsley and Eddy Helmer.

For Kevin Kingsley, a man addicted to drugs who battles bipolar disorder, his arrival at the center was “the beginning of his new life.” By the end of a yearlong stint in prison, Kevin had survived three drug overdoses, had become a “better criminal,” and was depressed. Upon his arrival at the center, Kevin began the detox process and was connected with a rehabilitation program. Since his departure, staffers from the center have called to check in on his progress and offer their services.

Without the center, Kevin explains, “I’d probably be dead, so I’m grateful to be here.”

Eddy Helmer has been addicted to drugs his whole life. He arrived at the center eager for an opportunity to change. After losing his wife, children, car, and job, Eddy desperately needed a community who cared about him and his road to recovery. Since his arrival, Eddy has embarked on the long road of overcoming addiction, reuniting with his family, and recovering what had been lost.

Kevin and Eddy are just two of a multitude who have been aided since the center’s opening. The center had assisted over 220 individuals. Some 45% of these individuals would have gone to jail, except for the referral of a police officer. Another 18% would have incurred high medical costs through emergency room visits. Most importantly, over 75% of these individuals have remained faithful to their rehabilitation and treatment plans.

Because law enforcement can refer individuals with mental health and substance abuse issues to the center, it not only saves them time but also jail space. On average, jail processing takes over an hour, while admission to the center takes under 10 minutes. This not only frees law enforcement to continue their work, but ensures jail space for individuals who actually pose a security threat to the community and avoids wasting taxpayer money.

The individuals who receive the center’s support also avoid extensive criminal charges and fines. Oftentimes, misdemeanor charges are removed from an individual’s record so long as the individual remains involved with the treatment program in its entirety. If the treatment program is successfully completed, it is possible that the individual may never be charged with the offense. This system encourages these individuals to pursue the help they need, without the burden of arrest, lengthened criminal record, court appearances, fines and other hurdles.

By approaching mental health and substance abuse as health concerns, the Davis County Receiving Center can help restore trust in law enforcement response, while alleviating the burden of imprisonment and providing free rehabilitation resources.

A vast majority of police officers seek to provide effective response to mental health and substance abuse crises. However, fear of imprisonment, hospitalization and fees ruins public trust in law enforcement. Offering free treatment services not only alleviates the taxpayer burden, but also allows for individuals to pursue the help they need without facing prosecution or debt from legal fees.

But, most importantly, in a time of skyrocketing addiction and mental illness cases, programs like this help restore trust in law enforcement and provide lasting, affordable improvement to mental health and substance abuse crises in Utah and beyond.

Leah Schnyders

Leah Schnyders is a policy intern for the Libertas Institute and a current senior at Wheaton College.