MADISON, Wis. — Attorney General Josh Kaul waded into the thorny world of emergency mental health detentions Thursday, convening a summit to brainstorm ways to save police from spending hours transporting detainees to treatment facilities.
Officers have complained for years that the system forces them to spend too much time waiting in emergency rooms for doctors to clear people for transport and driving them to facilities rather than patrolling.
“The situation we have now is bad for law enforcement because you lose resources in the community that work to prevent crime,” Kaul said in an interview ahead of the summit. “It’s bad for the officers because they’re unexpectedly taking overtime. It’s bad for taxpayers because you’re spending money on overtime. And it’s bad for people going through a mental health crisis who have to spend hours in that situation.”
Police in Wisconsin can temporarily detain people if they appear to be mentally ill, developmentally disabled or dependent on drugs and could pose a threat to themselves or others. Once the detainees clear a medical exam, officers must take them to a state- or county-approved treatment facility.
But the system is rife with obstacles.
No one has established standards for determining whether an emergency detainee is medically stable enough for transport, costing time and creating delays for officers and other patients.
A paper published by the Wisconsin Chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians and the Wisconsin Psychiatric Association this year on medical clearance of mentally ill patients found those patients spend substantially longer time in emergency rooms than people with non-psychiatric problems. Complicating matters is the lack of a universally accepted definition of medical clearance, the paper said.
Many county facilities lack bed space for emergency detainees, Kaul said. Two state psychiatric hospitals, the Mendota Mental Health Institution in Madison and the Winnebago Mental Health Institution in Oshkosh, had accepted them, but that changed in 2014, when then-Gov. Scott Walker’s administration decided in a consolidation move that Mendota would no longer take emergency detainees. Now Winnebago is the only state facility that will accept them.
According to state Department of Health Services data, Winnebago accepted 13,109 emergency detainees between 2014 and last year. But Oshkosh is far from the center of the state, forcing officers to drive for hours to drop off their detainees. A state Department of Justice survey of 154 police and sheriff’s departments this summer found emergency detention transports involve an average of 2.18 officers and take an average of 7.82 hours to complete.
“You could probably throw a dart at a map of the state and land on an agency that is frustrated by this,” said Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association.
The DHS data shows Kenosha County has sent 1,160 detainees to Winnebago between 2014 and 2018, the most of any county during that span. A round trip between Kenosha and Oshkosh is nearly 250 miles. Officers in Bayfield County, Wisconsin’s northernmost county, have driven 21 detainees to Oshkosh between 2014 and 2018. A round trip between Bayfield and Oshkosh is about 570 miles.
Bayfield police Chief John Fangman said his department employs three officers, including him, and only one works at a time. A trip to Winnebago can take that officer away for up to two days, creating hotel expenses and driving up overtime costs. The sheriff’s department covers the city when the on-duty officer is transporting a detainee, the chief said, but if something pulls deputies away the city would be left unprotected or he would have to bring in his second officer on overtime.
“It’s not workable,” Fangman said. “And we’re not the only ones who have this problem. All agencies in this part of the state are small agencies. Something has to be done.”
A bill in 2018 that would have forced Mendota to accept emergency detainees again and would have helped establish regional mental health centers that could accept emergency detainees went nowhere.
The summit agenda included sessions on decreasing emergency detentions by helping people connect with counseling, finding ways to standardize pre-transport medical clearance exams and using private contractors to move detainees. Other topics included reducing travel time by using neighboring states’ facilities and establishing regional facilities that could house detainees.
DHS officials were scheduled to give a presentation on mental health care and attorneys serving the Legislature were scheduled to speak on legal issues surrounding moving detainees out-of-state and using private transports.
“There are resources that have to go into solving it,” Kaul said. “But we’re already spending significant resources and we’d save if we develop a solution.”