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Sheriff: mental health should be part of police reform debate

Published: Jul. 2, 2020 at 5:57 PM PDT
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RENO, Nev. (KOLO) - Something disturbing emerges from a look at what's happening at the Washoe County Jail in the wake of the coronavirus.

“Where our bookings have gone down,” says Sheriff Darin Balaam, “We’re still seeing a steady increase of attempts and averted suicide attempts in our facility.”

There were, by the sheriff’s count, five suicide attempts and 212 others averted at the jail in the past three months. And while the total population behind bars was shrinking, the special unit for housing those with mental health issues remained full, the number of inmates needing special monitoring remained steady.

“Which tells us,” he says, “and I think all the community knows and should understand--we have a mental health issue.”

The jail’s medical staff will tell you somewhere between 40 to 60 percent, have problems serious enough to merit psychotropic medication.

“We’re the second-largest mental health hospital in the state,” says the Sheriff.

As he notes, it wasn’t always this way.

“Back in the 80′s, we saw state mental hospitals get cut and shut down. Those people that needed resources, where did they end up? Well, They ended up in our facilities, our jails, our prisons because they had nowhere else to take them. We have a great medical staff. We have great employees here, but we aren’t trained, we’re not fully equipped to address their underlying issues.”

The solution, Balaam believes, may be what are called Crisis Now Centers, now emerging elsewhere.

“You take them to a triage place that can triage them and appropriately identify if they have a mental health issue, an addiction issue and then you look for that long term service.”

In the meantime, changes have been made. Following the last successful suicide at the jail, a Detention Services unit was established. And in recent years, Mobile Outreach Safety Teams, or MOST teams have become part of community policing. But with a budget crunch on the horizon, the Sheriff worries these efforts will be sidelined and mental health will once again be put on the back burner.

“There are resources out there, but there are not enough and so it’s time we start having those true conversations like we’re having with other topics right now. How we move forward, how we address these issues is it’s going to take all of us. These are hard decisions it’s a crisis we have to address and, if we address it now, we can make a difference.”

Copyright 2020 KOLO. All rights reserved.

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