Mental health, substance abuse drive uptick in police calls

A recent surge in call-outs of the Porter County Sheriff’s Office to high-risk situations has county and local police officials citing a lack of mental health and substance abuse resources as the root of a spike in violent crime. In just over two weeks, the Emergency Response Team, Crime Scene Investigation Team, and Bomb Team of the sheriff’s office were called to assist in six serious situations throughout Porter County and neighboring Jasper County.

On May 27, the ERT was called out to the Eagle Crossing Apartment Complex in Chesterton after a tenant pointed a firearm at two employees of the complex and then barricaded himself inside an apartment. The ERT returned to Chesterton on May 31 to assist the Chesterton Police Department with an armed subject, followed by an incident June 10 during which the ERT assisted Chesterton Police in Porter with another subject, and finally on June 13 when Porter County Sheriff’s CSI Team again assisted Chesterton Police in a case at the Best Western Hotel where a woman was shot in the face.

“That’s a very bizarre case, but it ended up that two individuals (were) going through some mental health issues,” said Chesterton Police Chief Timothy Richardson.

Upon entering a complex situation in the hotel room, Richardson said he felt the expertise of the CSI Team was necessary.

“They’re always gracious to come help us when we need it,” he said.

In between these events, the Bomb Team assisted Jasper County on May 27 and the ERT responded to Jasper County on June 11.

Cpl. Ben McFalls, public information officer for the Porter County Sheriff’s Office, said this volume of calls to assist other police departments is a clear uptick from the one call-out every month or two the department typically sees.

“We really can’t control if someone is going through crisis, and that’s what these are,” McFalls said.

“As we all see in the United States, there has been an uptick in violent crimes and we’re starting to see that in our region as well,” Richardson said. “A lot of police leaders are all going to tell you the same thing, that mental health problems are on the rise and the availability of mental health services — there’s not enough.”

Local efforts are ramping up to address mental health in Porter County. A behavioral health study was recently commissioned and the county is currently in the planning phase of developing a Crisis Intervention Team with the help of the Indiana Office of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Marianne Halbert, criminal justice director for the Indiana office of NAMI, said the process of bringing together law enforcement, mental health providers, and other community stakeholders to identify gaps in care, assess the measurement of data, and provide specialized training takes about a year and a half.

“The main thing that makes it so successful is the partnership, so people aren’t so siloed,” she said.

Porter County Sheriff David Reynolds said facility available for long-term mental health stays is needed.

“Look how big our county is, but we don’t have a (long-term) mental health hospital,” he said, explaining that the Porter County Jail has a $1.3 million contract for mental health services.

“We’ve kind of put our head in the sand as far as dealing with mental health,” Reynolds said, recalling the closure of several long-term mental health facilities around the state in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

He said he’s working with the Governor’s Office and state lawmakers to get more resources for mental health services in Porter County.

“We’re trying to come up with some solutions that we can recommend for next session,” Reynolds said. “A lot of these people who have mental health issues should not be in our jail.

“I probably have five people right now in my jail who shouldn’t be there,” he said.

Halbert and leaders from Porter-Starke Services, the largest single organization that provides behavioral health care in Porter County that works closely with law enforcement, are concerned about the risk of perpetuating stereotypes of those with mental illness. She said there can sometimes be an assumption with serious call-outs that someone mentally ill must be involved.

“They’re much more likely to be the victim of a crime, not the perpetrator of a crime,” Halbert said.

She does agree that law enforcement is up against a shortage of available beds for those individuals who need long-term placement. The 16-bed facility operated by Porter-Starke in Valparaiso is for short-term stays.

“That’s kind of a chronic frustration for law enforcement and NAMI members. It’s hard to identify enough beds.”

Even if there were more long-term psychiatric beds available, law enforcement may not take an individual directly to a state hospital. Halbert said the Indiana Division of Mental Health and Addiction, which is responsible for competency restoration services, is currently conducting a study of how other states handle commitment to such facilities.

Todd Willis, director of community engagement for Porter-Starke, said concurrent rises in aggression, mental health issues, particularly depression, and substance abuse issues nationally make it difficult to separate them.

“I think when you look at some of the severe aggression we’ve seen post-COVID, there’s not necessarily a mental health correlation, but there’s a strong correlation with substance abuse,” he said.

This assessment doesvetails with the backgrounds of inmates. Reynolds said statistically 80% of men in jails have a substance abuse problem.

“A jail is kind of a litmus test for your county,” he said.

Reynolds would like the residents and would-be residents of Porter County to give more thought to those residents of the jail and the issues they face.

“I think it’s important for them to be reminded of what we have in Porter County,” he said. “People are moving into Porter County and why is that? It’s because they feel safe, and feel it’s a good place to raise a family. One thing they’re not talking about that I wish they would talk about is our inability to deal with mental health. We’re not equipped to deal with people who are having mental health issues.”

Willis said three things are handicapping this ability to deal with all of the above: low funding and services that prevent a breakdown in mental health; the jail not being equipped to treat mental illness; and a hole in the support system after the incarcerated leave jail to ensure they don’t reoffend.

“They get in there and he doesn’t have the resources to treat them,” Willis said. “He doesn’t have therapists, psychiatrists, etc.”

Shelley Jones is a freelance reporter for the Post-Tribune.

Dial 988 for a Lifeline — Beginning July 16 the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline will be reachable for any mental health crisis simply by dialing 988. Prior to that the Lifeline focused on suicide crisis, but moving forward will take calls for any crisis including substance abuse.

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