Catonsville legislators propose special police unit for situations involving mentally ill

By Lauren Loricchio
Catonville Times, The Baltimore Sun

Hoping to improve safety for both police officers and citizens, and also prevent the mentally ill from entering the criminal justice system, State Sen. Shirley Nathan-Pulliam (District 44) and Del. Charles Sydnor (District 44B) have sponsored legislation that would create separate mental health units for the Baltimore City police department and establish an evaluation system for the unit that already exists in Baltimore County.

The legislation would establish a pilot program requiring both police departments to have units made up of officers trained to understand the needs of those with mental illness.

"This type of collection of data will make it safer for everyone when those engagements occur," Sydnor said. "It will also provide a basis, if need be, so we can stop warehousing people with mental health issues in our current legal system and possibly lay the groundwork for an alternative to dealing with people who need mental health treatment, rather than prison."

Nathan-Pulliam, a member of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee whose district includes West Baltimore and parts of Catonsville and Woodlawn in Baltimore County, introduced the bill in the state Senate on Feb. 5.

“Our prisons are not mental health facilities,” Nathan-Pulliam said. “They are not the right place for these people.”

Nathan-Pulliam said she would like the state to model the pilot program after one in San Antonio, Texas which has saved the state and county about $50 million over the course of five years. The system takes those with mental illness out of jail and diverts them to a restoration center, she explained. 

She would eventually like to establish a restoration center like the one in San Antonio as an alternative to prison for mentally ill people, Nathan-Pulliam said.

The bill was introduced in the House of Delegates by Sydnor, whose district includes portions of Catonsville and Woodlawn, on Feb. 13.

"When you're looking at what's happening between the police departments and the communities, you have to have good relationships between police and the citizens in order to be safe," said Sydnor, a Democrat in his first term representing the newly created district.

"You have police coming across people with mental health issues who aren't trained in dealing with those things — the outcome can be deadly — not only for the citizen, but also for the police officer," Sydnor said.

Sydnor referenced a recent incident in Los Angeles during which a homeless man was shot and killed by three police officers during a scuffle, which was caught on video. However, the officers had received special training for situations with the homeless and mentally ill people, the Associated Press reported.

The legislation could mitigate potentially violent situations between police and mentally ill citizens, Sydnor said.

"It would help these individuals get services rather than be incarcerated in our prisons," said Sydnor, an attorney for nonprofit Enterprise Community Partners in Columbia.

Baltimore County already has an established mental health unit, the Mobile Crisis Team, which pairs police officers with master's degree level mental health clinicians, formed in 2001, according to their website.

The Baltimore City police department does not have such a unit, Sydnor said.

The county team has eight police officers and 13 licensed mental health clinicians and is part of a partnership with the county's police and health departments, along with behavioral health services company Affiliated Sante Group, the county website says.

Police officers and mental health professionals respond to an average of 200 calls between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m., seven days a week, the website says.

According to a county letter, in Fiscal Year 2014, the MCT responded to 2,064 situations, diverting 1,218 people from hospitals and the criminal justice system. 

Sydnor, a member of the state's House Judiciary Committee said the bill will have no affect on the county's current police unit, but will instead require the department to submit a report, which will allow state health officials to review and assess responses and results of the unit's actions.

The county police department has issued a letter to Sydnor in support of the bill.

Both the Baltimore City and Baltimore County delegations voted in favor of the bill on Friday, March 6. The bill goes before the Health and Government Operations Committee on Tuesday, March 10. 

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