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Two sheriffs: Reform mental-health law

By Sheriff Donald Eslinger and Sheriff Ben Johnson

Orlando Sentinel April 4, 2002
Copyright 2002. All rights reserved.

"Early intervention and continued treatment are less expensive and more effective than waiting for the problem to escalate; and, community-based treatment costs nearly 10 times less than inpatient hospitalization."

Law-enforcement officers are sworn to serve and protect. Yet sometimes the laws thwart that goal.

This is never truer than when we must intervene when a person with a severe mental illness is in crisis. In 1998, justified homicides by police in the general population nationwide were 1.4 per million. But for individuals with severe and persistent mental illnesses, the rate was 5.3 per million, nearly four times greater. In one survey, 20 percent of these shootings were in Florida, although we have less than 6 percent of the country's population.

Last week, another person with severe untreated mental illness died in an altercation with law enforcement. Vincent Zirakian of Deltona was killed when he shot at deputies after a six-hour standoff.

The higher rate of justified shootings of individuals with mental illnesses is largely due to the Baker Act, Florida's archaic mental-health law, which prevents intervention until the person with the severe mental illness becomes dangerous.

The Florida Sheriffs Association is proposing changes to the Baker Act that would make a huge difference to a specific group of individuals who are the most ill and have the largest impact on our communities.

Baker Act reform will affect only people who are repeatedly in crisis. More than 80,000 Baker Act cases were initiated in Florida in 2000. But in a 21-month period, more than 1,000 people were "Baker Acted" six or more times. We want to reduce the number of repeat Baker Acts initiated with this group of people.

Reform will save money. Baker Act recidivists now use a grossly disproportionate share of mental-health funding. Effectively treating this population can free up resources for voluntary treatment services. Early intervention and continued treatment are less expensive and more effective than waiting for the problem to escalate; and, community-based treatment costs nearly 10 times less than inpatient hospitalization.

Reform will save lives. A Duke University study found that assisted outpatient treatment not only reduced arrest rates but also violence, hospital admissions and length of stays in the hospital. This means people can be treated before they reach crisis.

Maintaining the status quo means law enforcement will remain the front-line contact for those who refuse treatment because they cannot recognize that they are ill.

Failing to support Baker Act reform until mental-health services are fully funded neglects those who will refuse treatment even when services are readily available.

We are here to serve and protect, and that means everyone, even -- and perhaps especially -- when they are helpless to protect themselves.

Donald Eslinger is the sheriff of Seminole County. Ben Johnson is the sheriff of Volusia County.

The information on Mental Illness Policy Org. is not legal advice or medical advice. Do not rely on it. Discuss with your lawyer or medical doctor. Mental Illness Policy Org was founded in February 2011 and recently received 501(c)(3) status. In order to maintain independence MIPO does not accept any donations from companies in the health care industry or government. That makes us dependent on the generosity of people who care about these issues. If you can support our work, please send a donation to Mental Illness Policy Org., 50 East 129 St., Suite PH7, New York, NY 10035. Thank you. For more information, http://mentalillnesspolicy.org.