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Sheriff: State Mental Health Cuts Undermine Public Safety

As states have struggled to balance their budgets during the economic downturn, mental health programs have frequently weathered significant cuts. Three-quarters of states have cut their mental health budgets during each of the past four fiscal years, for a combined reduction of $4.35 billion, according to the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors Research Institute, which represents state mental health agencies.

At the same time, demand for mental health services has increased by 10 percent, the group says.

But state mental health agencies aren’t the only ones feeling the pain— local law enforcement agencies say they’re bearing the brunt of the cuts.

Brian Gootkin is the Sheriff of Gallatin County, Montana — an area twice the size of Rhode Island, encompassing Bozeman and part of Yellowstone National Park — and he oversees 48 deputies. Gootkin says his force is “experiencing a significant increase” in psychiatric emergencies, which he says is a “direct result of mental health funding reductions.” Montana has cut its state mental health budget by 5.8 percent since 2009, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. 

“I would go so far as to say that my officers have become an involuntary component of the State of Montana’s emergency psychiatric response teams,” Gootkin said at a briefing on Capitol Hill Thursday.

When the police are called for a psychiatric emergency, he says his deputies are required to handcuff the patient and transport him or her in the back of the patrol call to the nearest facility, which may be up to two hours away.  The lengthy process has a major impact on the day-to-day operations of law enforcement, he explains, but it’s nothing in comparison to his colleagues in Custer County, Montana, where the nearest state hospital is nearly six hours away and there are only three deputies.

The increase in psych calls has a direct impact on public safety, Gootkin argues. “Every deputy that is diverted to the Montana State Hospital, or even to our local hospital is not on patrol maintaining public order and deterring crime,” he says.  And while his officers have some mental health training, “they are not mental health professionals, and I don’t want them to be. I want them to be deputy sheriffs.”