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Fort Smith police ready new mental-health unit

by Thomas Saccente | February 2, 2020 at 2:30 a.m.

FORT SMITH -- The Fort Smith Police Department announced on Friday that it will start a new crisis intervention and mental-health unit in the second quarter of this year.

Police Department command staff spent months developing the plan, which a department news release says will represent a philosophical shift in law enforcement response to "behavioral health and substance use disorder incidents."

"We recognize that police-related incidents and arrests involving citizens with mental-health issues can be reduced or prevented through early intervention," Fort Smith Police Chief Danny Baker said in the news release. "We must look at ways of dealing with these issues other than incarceration."

The unit's primary job functions will include but are not be limited to:

• Outreach to the homeless population to provide resources and referrals referencing mental-health and substance abuse issues.

• Nuisance abatement and quality-of-life complaints in and around the downtown area.

• Missing-person cases involving people with mental-health issues.

• Threats where the suspect has a clearly identified mental illness and is an immediate danger to himself or others.

• Addressing residents who frequently call 911, Police Department nonemergency numbers and administrative staff, who appear to have mental illness or who are seeking solutions or support for mental illness.

• Following up on reports of drug overdoses and suicide threats, and providing additional intervention, referral for additional services and treatment, if necessary. This is in addition to pursuing involuntary committal orders if needed and assisting family members in pursuing those orders.

• Assisting field personnel who come into contact with people in acute or emergency crises.

• Working with local agencies such as the Riverview Hope Campus and Next Step Day Room to identify people in need of additional resources related to mental-health issues.

• Addressing and finding resolutions to nuisance complaints associated with people suffering from mental illness.

• Working to reduce the number of incarcerations of people with mental illness by diverting them to various mental-health providers and services.

The unit will consist of two officers who will be named by March 1, the news release states. Two more officers will join once the unit is up and running. These officers will work under special operations and assist field operations and criminal investigations as needed. There will be two-person shifts on Sunday through Thursday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and on Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

The news release states that, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 37% of people incarcerated in state and federal prison have a diagnosed mental-health condition. At the same time, 70% of youth in the juvenile justice system have at least one mental-health condition, 20% of homeless people have serious mental illness, and about 12.5% of all visits to emergency rooms across the country are related to mental and substance use disorders.

In 2019, the Fort Smith Police Department responded to 561 suicide threat calls and 152 drug overdose calls. Officers also completed 292 "handling mentally impaired person" reports that same year.

"There's nothing criminal about having a mental illness, and we want to do our part in getting our fellow citizens and their families the support and resources needed to address it without incarceration being a part of the conversation," Baker said.

In an emailed comment, Fort Smith City Administrator Carl Geffken said, "We are excited as a city to see policing move in this direction and are beyond thrilled to have a forward-thinking police department leading the way with a unit that will make mental health a priority for our citizens and set an example statewide and nationally to show that there is another way of addressing these issues -- one that doesn't punish people or families for issues that are so often beyond their control."

State Desk on 02/02/2020

Print Headline: Fort Smith police ready new mental-health unit


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