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Police response to Arkansas county’s crisis unit improves

June 11, 2018

FORT SMITH, Ark. (AP) — Though law enforcement officials’ response to the Sebastian County Five West Crisis Stabilization Unit was slow at first, CSU officials say they are finally starting to fully utilize the facility.

CSU, located on South 70th Street in Fort Smith, was established to divert the mentally ill in Sebastian, Crawford, Logan, Franklin, Scott and Polk counties from jail to treatment. Program director Joey Potts said officers’ response to CSU has picked up since the unit opened at the end of February.

“Any time there’s something new, something different, it certainly takes time for people to understand the process, how to utilize this asset as best we possibly can,” said Sebastian County Sheriff Bill Hollenbeck, who was one of a handful of public officials who pushed for the establishment of CSU.

Officers from the six counties may call CSU and screen detainees who they believe to have mental health issues over the phone, Potts said. If the detainee is approved for diversion to CSU, the officer then brings the detainee to the facility and hands him or her off after a brief interview, she said.

Potts said she has seen officers from agencies in all six of the counties bring detainees to CSU. She said Fort Smith police officers were initially slower at bringing detainees to the facility because of department policies.

Despite the initial lag in referrals, Potts said workers at CSU still have good relationships with all law enforcement agencies who have utilized the facility, the Southwest Times Record reported .

“They’ve been very supportive,” Potts said of the officers.

Officials said they still face challenges when diverting detainees to the unit. Sgt. Robert Crouch with the Sebastian County Sheriff’s Office said he sometimes has a difficult time convincing detainees he is not taking them to jail.

“What I tell them is, ‘Hey, if you voluntarily go with me to the stabilization unit, we’re going to get you the help you need,’” he said. “There’s still this mistrust of, ‘Is this guy really telling me the truth, or is he just trying to trick me into going to jail?’”

When Crouch pulls up at CSU, however, the detainee is usually thankful, he said.

“I’ve really never run across another one after (the detainee) has gotten the help he or she needs here,” Crouch said

Sebastian County Judge David Hudson, who pushed for the establishment of CSU with Hollenbeck, said law enforcement officials play the key role in the operation of the unit. He said this is especially true of officers who have completed crisis intervention training.

“They monitor those individuals in the field, and they have to make a determination, based on their training, as to whether or not they are appropriate to divert to be booked into jail,” he said.

Officials with the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Arkansas and the Arkansas Law Enforcement Training Academy held a weeklong Crisis Intervention Training course in January in Fort Smith. Hudson said he and other officials are pushing for as many law enforcement officials as possible to be certified in Crisis Intervention Training.

Hudson also said he has talked with other officials about holding a meeting between officials with the Sebastian County Sheriff’s Office, the Fort Smith Police Department and the Western Arkansas Guidance Center about protocols for diversion to CSU. He said the questions asked to the 911 dispatchers would also be discussed in this meeting.

“There is a continued shift in policy and procedure that we will continue to focus on with our law enforcement agencies in partnership with the treatment facility,” Hudson said. “That’ll be an ongoing process.”

In the meantime, Hollenbeck said he will continue to push law enforcement officials to divert detainees who qualify.

“I’m going to continue to encourage our deputies and our local law enforcement officers to have the courage to have compassion for people who need mental health (treatment) rather than incarcerating them,” he said.

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Information from: Southwest Times Record, http://www.swtimes.com/

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