Statewide budget cuts to mental health programs are having an impact on the Jefferson Police Department’s ability to fulfill its traditional role as protectors of the peace.
While addressing the Jefferson Board of Aldermen during its regular meeting Monday night, Police Chief David Neaves said that his officers are spending a great deal of time dealing with mental health emergencies.
Specifically, Neaves said that over the last nine months JPD officers have spent over 100 12-hour shifts, or around 1,300 hours supervising local, and in some cases, out-of-county residents who are awaiting placement in a 24-hour care facility following a mental health emergency.
If a mental health crisis occurs and a person is deemed to be a danger to himself/herself or others, this person may be legally committed to a mental health facility against his/her will. In this case, he or she is transported by a law enforcement officer to the Ashe Memorial Hospital emergency department where the patient is assessed by a licensed medical practitioner. Once the initial assessment is performed by a doctor, the patient is then assessed by a mental health professional and the lengthy process of admission to a mental health facility begins.
Until he or she is admitted to a 24-hour care facility, the patient must remain in the hospital emergency department. Although it is at an officer’s discretion whether they leave the patient unattended at the hospital, the Town of Jefferson is responsible if an incident were to occur.
In most cases, having the safety of hospital patients and staff in mind, officers will stay with involuntary commitments during the hours when hospital security is unavailable for a period of time in the early morning hours. Even when hospital security is available, officers will stay if a patient behaves violently, said Neaves.
The length of time involuntarily committed patients will occupy a bed in the emergency department depends on several factors and can vary dramatically. A patient with insurance may wait as little as 12 hours, whereas an uninsured patient will wait longer. In one instance, Neaves sat with a patient for 16 days.
“The problem we’re having is that these things have exploded with the town bearing the brunt,” Neaves said of the issue of involuntary commitments.
Jefferson now averages about 15 involuntary commitments per week, leaving the Jefferson Police Department looking to its neighboring towns and the county, as well as the state, for a solution.
Because the mental healthcare facility Daymark and the county’s hospital are both located in Jefferson, the town ends up with the responsibility for these involuntary commitments, even though a third or less are Jefferson residents. The aldermen said they could look into asking West Jefferson, Lansing and the County of Ashe to share in the financial responsibility.
Alderman Charles Caudill suggested the town also seek help from state representatives when it comes to budgeting for mental health services.
Neaves brought the issue to the attention of the Jefferson aldermen, who decided that for now, the town should proceed as before until a permanent solution is determined.
Alderman Mark Johnston said, “We have to cover our responsibility. It’s going to be costly, but we’ve got to cover it. There’s no way around it.”
Neaves accepted this responsibility, saying, “That’s what we’re here for. It’s part of our job.”
Neaves said that hospital resources are also stressed by involuntary commitments because of limited space in the emergency department. There are five beds in the emergency department, three of which were occupied by involuntary commitments at the time of reporting, leaving fewer beds for patients with physical injuries needing immediate attention, resulting in longer emergency room waits.
In other business at the meeting, the board:
* set public hearings for the annexation and zoning of a parcel of land for 7 and 7:05 p.m. at the October meeting
* approved Watson Contracting for the clearing and preparation of the old jail site
* heard from Stacy Maye of the Olde Towne Business Association about a change in the group’s meeting time to the second Tuesday of the month at lunchtime.