Officers are frequently called on to intervene in mental health crises. They routinely encounter people talking to themselves or behaving erratically, experiencing drug-induced psychosis, or acting violently with family members due to mental illness.
Historically, scenarios like this put officers in a very tough position with few good options.
If the person poses a “substantial danger to self or others” due to a mental illness, the officer could take him to the nearest emergency room. However, emergency rooms often lack the capacity to deal with a mental health crisis and can only keep the person for twenty-four hours absent further legal proceedings. Even if the instant crisis is averted, without a long-term solution, future crises are likely.
If the person committed a crime like trespass, theft, or assault, the officer could take him to jail. This temporarily protects the public, and jails are required to provide mental health care, but jails were never designed to treat mental illness. At some point the person will be released, and he is likely to be less stable than when he entered. Again, crisis averted, but only temporarily and at the cost of increased risk of future crises.
And what about the person walking around a public park, talking to herself and behaving erratically? She isn’t committing a crime and doesn’t pose a substantial danger to herself or others. Yet common sense tells us the person needs help, and it’s very likely her disturbed thinking will lead her to harm herself or others in the near future. At a minimum, she is not in any position to adequately provide for her own basic needs.
What’s an officer to do?
Some Utah communities have another option: receiving centers. Simple in concept, a receiving center is a safe place with comfortable recliners and trained medical and mental health staff. Patients are monitored and supported until the immediate crisis is over. Then staff conduct evaluations and create a long term solution which may include connecting the person with housing, mental health or substance abuse treatment, and employment resources.
In 2019, Davis County opened the first receiving center in Utah, and its success has prompted additional centers. Utah County opened a receiving center in January 2022, and Washington County is building one.
Receiving centers offer an option for addressing mental health and addiction outside of the criminal justice system. At the Davis County receiving center, officers can choose to delay submitting charges for people who committed low-level offenses. The receiving center then monitors the person’s compliance with treatment. If they are successful, charges are never filed. This saves the justice system time and money, addresses the underlying cause of criminal behavior, and lowers the likelihood of recidivism.
Mental health and addiction are all too frequently handled in the criminal justice system, which was designed to incapacitate and punish those who violate others’ physical integrity and property rights. When we attempt to use the system to coerce people out of addiction or deter criminal behavior in those who are too ill to rationally respond to incentives, we fail. In the process we waste valuable police, prosecutorial, defense, judicial, and incarceration resources. These resources would be better spent addressing serious crime, including the recent spike in violent crime.
Receiving centers are not a magic bullet or a complete solution. They are a first step. If successive steps are not taken, like providing adequate facilities to house and treat the chronically and severely mentally ill, receiving centers could become another revolving door. However, they offer a temporary respite to regroup and move forward in the right direction. They also offer a glimpse into a world where mental illness and addiction are effectively addressed outside of the criminal justice system.
The criminal justice system is a powerful tool. But like all tools, it is most effective when used for its intended purpose. Using a hammer to install a screw is going to end in destruction and frustration. Using the criminal justice system to address mental health and addiction ends the same way. If our intended outcome is greater safety in our communities, we would do well to use alternative tools like receiving centers, rather than hitting every problem with a hammer.