NBC15 Investigates: Transports of people with mental health illnesses costing law enforcement

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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) -- When someone is a harm to themselves or the community, the majority of U.S. states allow EMS crews to transport them to help, not including Wisconsin.

"The needs are ever greater," Madison Police Chief, Mike Koval said.

Koval has been vocal about his disagreement with state policies on transporting people with mental illnesses and says he will continue to be vocal until policies change.

Under current Wisconsin mandates, two police officers must transport someone who is having a mental health crisis. People who voluntarily check themselves in to a local treatment center do not need police to drive them, but it is an option. Involuntary transports are referred to as emergency detentions. State laws require the officers first need to have the patients cleared by medical professionals before they bring them to a facility. Often times this can take hours, according to Koval. He says officers don't get special treatment and must wait in emergency rooms with everyone else.

It's not waiting in emergency rooms that has some of South Central Wisconsin's leading law enforcement figures upset.

"It is what the state has forced us into and how we can provide the care these individual's need," Dane County Sheriff, Dave Mahoney said.

Mahoney and Koval boast about their department's training when it comes to mental health, but not every department in Wisconsin gets the training they provide their officers and deputies.

"We are doing all of the things we are not trained to do and we are the only entity that can do it under Wisconsin's laws," Beloit Police Chief, David Zibolski said.

Zibolski raises concerns about the patients safety both mentally and physically as they sit in a squad car, often in handcuffs, awaiting to be dropped off at a psychiatric hospital. Zibolski says patients ocassionally have medical emergencies on transports, then officers need to call EMS crews for assistance.

A concern that mental health advocate, Hannah Flanagan thinks is alarming.

Flanagan has helped those with mental illnesses at Journey Mental Health in Dane County for two decades. She believes the state needs to look at the "many different options" to transport people with mental illnesses.

"When you have someone who has a thought disorder like schizophrenia and they are already paranoid and have delusions about law enforcement and the government; then they find themselves in the back of a police car getting transported hours away. I think it could feed into their delusions to some degree," Flanagan said.

According to the Bureau of US Census, out of 4.5 million people in Wisconsin--100,000 have severe bipolar disorder, and 50,000 have schizophrenia.

The way patients are transported isn't the only issue for the law enforcement leaders and mental health advocates.

Outside of Milwaukee County, the state runs Mendota Mental Health Institute and Winnebago Mental Health Institute. Both serve people with mental illnesses for different reasons.

According to the Department of Health Services, services for civil patients were consolidated at Winnebago Mental Health Institute (WMHI) to increase space for forensic patients at Mendota Mental Health Institute.

"These efforts promote consistent policy and continuity of care for all patients," DHS spokesperson, Elizabeth Goodsitt said.

Forensic patients can be patients that have a court ordered stay or need a longer-time at the facility for more complex conditions. According to DHS, emergency detentions typically stay around 3 days.

The state began consolidating its facilities around 2010, according to Chief Zibolski. A full closure of emergency detentions to Mendota was put into place in 2014 under the Scott Walker Administration.

This means the drive for Zibolski's officers to transport someone with a mental illness increased once they were no longer directed to go to Mendota. It is a six hour round trip from Beloit to Winnebago "if nothing goes wrong."

"It doesn't make any sense. I think it makes sense from the state's perspective that they can put all the costs on local governments, close some of their facilities, and push the costs out," Zibolski said.

The state does not reimburse local departments for the costs of transports.

Zibolski sternly believes driving people with mental health issues in the back of a squad car to Winnebago has not benefited law enforcement or the mental health community.

Koval agrees.

The Madison Police Department took a more aggressive approach when Mendota official didn't accept emergency detentions. The department sued to have the state re-open Mendota.

After a Dane County judge sided with the state, the case was appealed to higher courts. To Koval's dismay, the ruling was upheld.

Koval has the fear that people with mental health illnesses mistakenly end up in the criminal justice system.

"I would be naive and it would be disingenuous to say they probably haven't crept into that jail [Dane County Jail] from time to time," Koval said.

Overtime costs are a chore, but law enforcement leaders say having their officers gone for sometime 8-10 hours a trip is worse. Smaller departments deal with a bigger challenge of sometimes having their only patrol officers gone for long periods of time, Zibolski said.

"We are all dealing with the staffing issues, and the cost issue that goes along with it," Zibolski said.

NBC15 Investigates requested documents on transports and overtime costs. Beloit has paid $40,000 in budgeted overtime costs since June 2016. In 2018 alone, Madison paid just under that with $39,600 in overtime costs.

DHS's spokesperson, Goodsitt told NBC15 Investigates, they are working to be better partners with counties and local law enforcement, and provide more appropriate services to state residents. She says Governor Evers’ budget proposes funding a portion of the Medicaid crisis intervention benefit. As part of this initiative the budget also provides operational funding to support community-based regional crisis stabilization centers for adults to keep people closer to home where they have easy access to their natural supports.

However, Evers' budget has yet to have been passed through legislation.

There is hope with the new administration that lawmakers will change the policies.

Wisconsin's newly elected Attorney General, Josh Kaul, has met with some law enforcement departments and discussed mental health transports.

"I think we need to reform the system we have in place right now," Kaul said. "I am hoping legislators will pass something in this session."

Zibolski believes there is the state isn't intentionally putting ill will on his department. He says everyone agrees improvements can be made to better serve people with mental illnesses. He has been actively meeting with his local lawmakers about proposing legislation.

He's praying this time it will pass.