Chief concerned over emergency detention changes

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Mike Heine
Thursday, January 31, 2008

A change to Walworth County’s emergency detention procedures has caused concern among police chiefs in the area, particularly Delavan Chief Tim O’Neill.

He says the county is not taking as cautionary a path as it used to when dealing with suicidal or dangerous subjects under the influence of alcohol.

“If they’re threatening suicide and alcohol is involved, (doctors) are taking the (treatment) path of alcohol,” said O’Neill, head of the Walworth County Police Chiefs Association. “We don’t think that’s erring on the side of safety.”

O’Neill, who expressed his concerns to the Health and Human Services Board, said the county is taking the path of least resistance and people aren’t getting the “cooling off” period offered by an emergency mental detention.

Wisconsin statutes give police authority to detain people they believe are a danger to themselves or others because they are drunk or because they are suffering from a mental illness.

O’Neill said he’s worried that people detained for intoxication are not always being evaluated as thoroughly for mental illness.

County officials said those people aren’t being ignored. Like the rest of Wisconsin, the county has changed its approach, officials said.

Walworth County Health and Human Services Director Linda Seemeyer said drunkenness might lead to a shorter stay in protective custody, but not necessarily an emergency mental commitment, which can last more than 72 hours if ordered by a judge.

Those detained an on emergency mental commitment receive treatment at out-of-county mental facilities, Seemeyer said. Not only is that costly, but health officials believe most individuals are treated better at home or in other community care facilities.

Additionally, only 10 percent of emergency mental commitments last 72 hours and require a court hearing, where a judge determines if more treatment is necessary. Most people are released in less than 72 hours after a psychiatric evaluation, Seemeyer said.

Between 2006 and 2007, the county had 26 fewer emergency detentions, dropping from 358 to 332, according to county figures.

O’Neill agrees that not everyone brought in needs hospitalization, but believes detentions should be considered in serious cases that involve alcohol.

He pointed to a situation in Delavan where an armed man barricaded himself inside and was threatening suicide.

Emergency room doctors determined that he was drunk but not a danger to himself. The man would have been allowed to go home after he sobered up if he hadn’t been arrested for the standoff, O’Neill said.

That is a danger to not only the individual but also to the community, O’Neill said.

“A stricter interpretation of that statute needs to go back where it was a year or two ago,” O’Neill said.

The county made the switch in April, when its Health and Human Services Department added programs and became certified for crisis intervention.

“There are more services available for an individual,” Walworth County Health and Human Services Deputy Director Liz Aldred said. She said more crisis intervention workers, mobile crisis intervention workers and community care facilities are available.

“We now have services that can we can provide to an individual in their home or in a respite care facility instead of sending them off to a psychiatric hospital,” Aldred said. “If you help them connect to things in their own community, the process of improving is significantly better.”

Hospitals, big bills and being away from home, work and families don’t always help, Aldred said.

“These are generally not things that make people feel better,” she said.

Last updated: 12:18 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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