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Wednesday — February 4, 2004


New law permits intervention for mentally ill

County prosecutor briefs
public safety officers

Express Staff Writer

Speaking to a roomful of Wood River Valley law enforcement officers and emergency service personnel at the Old Blaine County Courthouse Wednesday, Jan. 28, Blaine County Deputy Prosecutor Tim Graves led a training session about a new law governing involuntary commitment of gravely disabled individuals.

Blaine County Deputy Prosecutor Tim Graves and Tom Hansen, president of the Wood River branch of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, last week helped to educate law enforcement and the public about laws and health care for people suffering from mental illness. Express photo by Matt Furber

The training was about a new law that permits peace officers to intervene when persons suffering from mental illness are an imminent threat to themselves or others.

Idaho Code defines someone gravely disabled as "a person who, as the result of mental illness, is in danger of serious physical harm due to the person’s inability to provide for any of his basic needs for nourishment, or essential medical care, or shelter or safety."

Graves explained the protocol that dictates when a person can be held on an involuntary basis. According to the law, a person may be taken into custody if an officer has "reason to believe" an individual is incapable of caring for his basic needs and is, therefore, a threat to themselves or others.

"It is a lower standard than probable cause," Graves said. "(Police) only have to suspect a person meets the criteria. No determination of mental illness is required."

But he explained that officers can rely on "collateral information" from family members, friends, mental health professionals, physicians and hospital staff to help them make a determination.

"Cops aren’t making a (psychological) diagnosis, clearly they don’t do that," Hailey Police Chief Brian McNary said. "But, if they suspect that a person is (ill) they can be taken to St. Luke’s to be evaluated by a local (designated mental health examiner) ... You’re not arresting them, you’re detaining them so they can get health care."

McNary was part of Gov. Dirk Kempthorne’s task force that helped draw up the language last year for the gravely disabled legislation. He is also on the board of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. The president of the Wood River chapter, Tom Hansen, helped organize the training session and said the education is a big step toward helping the mentally ill.

At the session, Blaine County Sheriff Walt Femling said there is also a liability issue to be considered if someone with a mental health problem is taken to jail on a charge of disturbing the peace. He said it takes a while to train officers, but he asked that law enforcement not immediately take individuals to jail if there is suspicion that they have mental health problems.

If a person taken in on an involuntary hold is determined by a designated examiner to have some mental illness, they are then taken to Canyon View Psychiatric and Addiction Services, part of Magic Valley Regional Medical Center in Twin Falls. There a second evaluation is made and examiners either reject or concur with the initial examination, McNary said.

"We keep abreast of changes in the law and we keep in touch with people in our community, who suffer from mental illness," he said.

Under the traditional standards set for law enforcement, a threat of substantial physical harm was required—such as suicidal or violent behavior—to act affirmatively when dealing with the mentally ill. Problems arose when a person was not imminently suicidal or violent, but was nevertheless in need of immediate treatment, Graves said.



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