Whether it's a woman threatening suicide or a man stuck in a tree screaming at demons only he can see, Seattle's first responders currently have few options when dealing with people suffering from mental health issues: book them into King County Jail (if they're committing a crime), take them to the nearest hospital for a mental evaluation (if they consent), or leave them alone.
"Officers often think they're responding to a routine call, and it's really someone having a mental crisis," explains Detective Renee Witt, a spokeswoman for the Seattle Police Department. In these situations, barring a good reason to have the person involuntarily committed at Harborview Medical Center—i.e., he or she presents a real threat to themselves or others—"there's not a lot we can do," Witt says.
In 2010, there were 2,930 psychiatric-based admissions to King County Jail. Meanwhile, Seattle/King County Public Health reports that 9.1 percent of total EMT calls between 2006 and 2010 were due to mental health issues.
"People who aren't violent and who are clearly dealing with a mental illness or an emotional break don't belong in jail," says Bill Hobson, the executive director of the Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC), a nonprofit that helps people suffering from mental health or substance abuse problems.
The DESC is about to change that. Starting on September 27, the organization is trying something that's never been done before: It's buying a car, staffing it with 13 rotating mental health professionals, and making it available 24/7 to select first responders, including the police. When called, this mobile crisis team will drive to the scene, help diffuse the crisis, assess individuals for mental health or drug related issues, and refer them to the appropriate services.
In Seattle, being a public nuisance or disturbing the peace is not a crime. But, obviously, these people still deserve treatment. "This is a much-needed service," Witt says. "I think it will fill the gap in what we can do for people."
The mobile crisis team is part of a larger plan to build a 30-bed mental health facility in the Jackson Place neighborhood (which some nearby residents have protested) where nonviolent individuals suffering from mental, emotional, and substance abuse issues can recover. "When we open the diversion facility, we'll start to take referrals from all first responders in the county," explains Nicole Macri, a spokesperson for the DESC.
But that facility is still conceptual. In April, a small group of Jackson Place residents—calling themselves the Jackson Place Alliance for Equity (JPAE)—filed a lawsuit to stop the facility from being built. They argue that because the institution will have time-released locks and alarms on select doors, it will operate more like a prison than a mental health hospital (and current zoning regulations wouldn't allow for a prison in the area). A spokeswoman from the JPAE didn't return requests for comment. Both sides will present their arguments before King County Superior Court judge Susan Craighead on September 30.