Stemming the Tide - By U.P. Police Chief Mike Blair

Our community is facing a crisis that affects us all.

Because of insufficient mental health funding at the state and county level, local communities like University Place are being inundated with a growing number of mentally unstable people who, because of their illnesses, pose a serious threat to public safety.

Every day, my officers and our peers throughout Pierce County face the challenges of dealing with people who are threatening to harm themselves or others. Many of these people should be in mental health facilities where they could receive the expert care required to deal with their unique diagnoses. Treatment should be our first option. Lacking mental health beds, officers are forced to book offenders into jail for misdemeanor offenses.

That has made the Pierce County jail the third largest mental health facility in the county. I say “facility” loosely, however, since the jail is not equipped to treat mental health cases.

The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department is currently working on a co-responder model for the county that would provide the appropriate resources and personnel to respond to mental health calls. This approach has been employed successfully in Tacoma and Lakewood, where officials report that it has freed up patrol resources for other calls.

Our inability to treat this mental health crisis is indeed a public safety crisis, but it is also a human crisis. These are people who are sick and who desperately need medical care, therapy and medication. It costs money to hold them in the jail. Wouldn’t we better off spending that money on mental health services?

We aren’t saving money by incarcerating them. If they have committed a crime, then yes, they belong in jail. But for those who only threaten but never act, incarceration is not the best answer. Perhaps it is time that we, as a community, begin to recognize that there are cost-savings in prevention instead of reaction.