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Bill allows law enforcement to take those in mental health crisis into protective custody

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

A bill working its way through the Legislature would allow law enforcement officers from designated agencies around the state to take people into protective custody if there is “reasonable cause to believe that the individual has a mental illness and is an immediate danger to himself or herself or others.”

The individual doesn’t have to be charged with a crime and the detainment is not an arrest. The hold can last up to 72 hours if not extended by a probate judge.

“This is for those acute cases, to get those individuals stabilized in a hospital setting and hopefully get them care,” sponsor Rep. Wes Allen, R-Troy, told the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.

A substitute version of House Bill 284 says the law wouldn’t be applicable in each county until the judge of probate and county commission “makes a finding that there exists in the county provisions for implementation of this act and the necessary designated treatment facilities to detain persons pursuant to this act.”

“It brings everybody to the table to make sure everybody is onboard with this process,” Allen, a former Pike County probate judge, said.

The bill requires at least one physician and another medical professional to, after consultation with the individual, sign a statement finding that the individual appears to have a mental illness, may be a danger to others or himself and needs further observation.

The bill was approved unanimously in committee with bi-partisan support. Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, said currently, people experiencing mental health crisis may end up in county jails.

“The reason that happens is because the state of Alabama overall has failed to take care of our citizens with mental illness,” England said.

England said he hopes the legislation gives law enforcement a tool to help individuals get treatment, not housed in jail.

Allen’s bill says people in crisis would be transported to health care facilities that have written agreements with counties to provide evaluation, treatment, and care to individuals placed in protective custody.

If the individual does not consent to the transport, the officer may use reasonable force necessary to carry it out.

Concerns about the bill do exist. James Tucker, director of the Alabama Disability Advocacy Program, said that it is a move in the wrong direction. The Legislature last year funded three crisis diversion centers that are now being set up in Mobile, Montgomery and Huntsville. They will be designated places for law enforcement, first responders and hospitals to take individuals experiencing an acute mental health crisis instead of a local jail or emergency room. Tucker praised that effort.

“Clearly, what we need in order to provide appropriate care to individuals who may be experiencing a mental health crisis is crisis and diversion services,” Tucker said. “In other words, medical care, not law enforcement interventions.”

In essence, HB284 proposes a mechanism for commitment without due process, Tucker said.

“We don’t need to go back to those days,” he said. When someone is experiencing an acute crisis, it should be mental health professionals who respond, Tucker said.

“Crisis diversion, which we are now funding in the state, is the way to do it,” he said. “It is not law enforcement led.

“There is a mental health center in every county in the state, there are relevant staff that understand how to provide these services in the community. And most if not all counties have local mental health officers.”

A spokeswoman for the Alabama Department of Mental Health said the agency is working with Allen and wanted to wait before commenting on HB284.

It now goes to the House floor for a vote. 

A similar bill from Allen was approved by the House last year before COVID-19 upended the session and killed many bills.

Allen in 2019 passed a similar law specific to Pike County. Without it, there’s not much law enforcement can do for someone in crisis, unless they commit a crime, he previously said. Similar bills were enacted in Dale, Houston and Barbour counties.

Separately, House Bill 16 by Rep. Rex Reynolds, R-Huntsville, would require 16 hours of mental health and crisis intervention training for law enforcement officers in the state. That bill is now waiting for a House vote.

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