KAILUA-KONA — Hawaii County currently has no program to assist law enforcement when dealing with those who suffer from a mental illness. However, efforts continue on state and local levels to give officers the resources they need when encountering these individuals.
“Police officers cannot replace mental health professionals and mental health professionals cannot replace police officers,” said Dr. Michael Champion, forensic chief for the Department of Health in the Adult Mental Health Division at the State of Hawaii Police Commissioners’ Conference.
On Tuesday, Champion addressed police commissioners and law enforcement, who gathered at the King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel on the second day of the conference, about the mental health challenges that face police officers. The annual event rotates between Hawaii, Oahu, Maui and Kauai counties every year.
“I think what we see in trends around the country are correctional facilities becoming de facto mental health facilities,” Champion said.
Mental health experts discussed two programs that allow law enforcement and health professionals to work together to help these individuals who deal with mental illness. The Sequential Intercept Model has been operating in Honolulu for a year and was recently rolled out in Maui County.
The model is underway in Hawaii County. Champion said the goal is get the program statewide.
Champion said the Sequential Intercept Model provides a pathway for mental health professionals to understand how a person travels in the criminal justice system and how they can intervene.
Steve Balcom, crisis services coordinator, said there are five intercept points in the model where programs and services are designed to help those with mental illness.
“What we are going to talk about is there are other options that hopefully not have these individuals penetrate the criminal justice system,” Balcom said.
The Mental Health Emergency Worker program is found in Intercept 1. The program is designed to divert individuals with mental illness from arrest in favor of a mental health evaluation when those individuals come into contact with law enforcement.
“It’s important for the mental health emergency workers to understand what they’re role is as well as what your role is,” he said of police officers.
Since the model program’s implementation in the City and County of Honolulu, for the 2017 fiscal year there have been 3,547 calls from officers to mental health emergency workers.
Another program discussed was LEAD, which is a community-based diversion program for people whose criminal activity is due to behavioral health issues.
A pilot program is planned for the City and County of Honolulu. Mental health experts on Tuesday said Honolulu police officers would have ultimate discretion to determine if someone is referred to LEAD. The program enhances that discretion and gives law enforcement additional options.
What the Department of Health is doing, Champion said, is partnering with law enforcement around the state.
“They don’t replace each other but they complement each other,” he said. “What I learned very quickly the best judges of how people behave are law enforcement.”
Champion said he believes, as a forensic officer, mental health and law enforcement share the same goal: “We want public safety to be maintained.”
Champion added LEAD provides the option of a place to drop off an individual who suffers from mental illness without having to take them into custody. Key components of the program are screenings, Linkage and case management.
“As a statewide official I’m very sensitive that we need to find solutions for each county,” Champion said.
Hawaii Police Department Chief Paul Ferreira said Maj. Robert Wagner is currently working with CARE Hawaii, an outpatient mental health service, on how to address those who suffer from mental illness in Hawaii County.
If an officer does encounter an individual with a mental illness, Ferreira said, they usually attempt to take them to the hospital voluntarily if it’s needed. If they are a danger to themselves, officers will take the person against their will.
“Our problem is the lack of services,” the chief said. “The island is so big and the services are so spread out.”