Police in rural Ohio towns struggle with surge in mental health crises

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CINCINNATI — A surge in mental health crises is putting rural Ohio police departments in a corner. The nearest hospital handling this need is so far away from some towns and villages that their police sometimes lose their only patrol unit to drop off patients.

The 911 calls hit the Village of Georgetown Police in waves. Adults in crisis needing mental health treatment dial the department for help more than domestic disturbance calls, Chief Robert Freeland said. Police in nearby Hamersville see it too. However, what often happens next feels worse.

“With our current challenges with staffing it could be that there’s literally no officer in Georgetown during that time,” Chief Freeland said.

His village is a 30-minute drive away from the nearest hospital accepting pink slips, which are forms the state of Ohio allows police to use to involuntarily hospitalize someone in crisis in an emergency mental health facility for 72 hours. Police chiefs from five different Brown County towns said patients often get released sooner.

“Within hours (of drop off it happens) at times,” Chief Freeland said. “There’s kind of the running joke that sometimes they beat us back to town.”

When children require mental health crisis care, Brown County law enforcement officers must drive them to the main campus of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.

“I have taken two girls in the last month,” Chief Freeland said.

Brown County Sheriff Gordon Ellis sees many people in crisis cycle in and out of hospitals and jail.

“There’s often no one to require them to take the medication (when they leave),” Ellis said. “They don’t. Then they suffer the after-effects of not having medication.”

In Cincinnati, police built an alternative response center with mental health specialists fielding calls and helping officers in the field. Ellis put his deputies and corrections officers through critical incident training to help them better manage and diffuse conflicts with people in crisis.

The Brown County jail partners with Talbert House to offer limited counseling treatment and hospital transfer options for severe cases. However, it comes with a significant delay.

“Average time for us for an inmate who really needs to be in a state mental facility or state treatment is anywhere from 90 to 120 days,” said Ellis. “So, they’re in the jail for that long and it creates a very challenging environment for us, frankly.”

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