No surprises were expected regarding the Palm Coast City Councils approval of a new three-year contract for policing with the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office Tuesday, and no surprises preceded the unanimous vote ratifying the annual $2.6 million deal, which the council debated at length in a work session last month.
But it had done so in Sheriff Jim Manfre’s absence. Manfre was present for the vote at the council meeting Tuesday, and as is often the case when Manfre speaks, surprises are never far off: he is an activist sheriff eager to speak and act on various law enforcement social trends, one of which he described of at length Tuesday: the growing role of cops as first responders in mental health emergencies that result in what essentially amounts to individuals’ detention in a psychiatric ward in Daytona Beach—what’s more commonly known as Baker Act detentions.
Beyond an exchange of niceties between the city and the sheriff (“the relationship between the city and the sheriff’s office could not be better,” Manfre said, citing the continuing love-fest between the office and the city’s fire department), he got to the matter of burdens ahead and triggered a much broader discussion on issues local governments have so far been reluctant either to acknowledge or to take on: where mental health emergencies, age and social responsibilities meet.
“One of our major challenges in this community and throughout this country is the issue of mental health,” Manfre said. “We have become, law enforcement, the default provider of mental health care, which is not what our deputies are trained to do. But because there is no other, really, infrastructure, we have to do that.”
In a single month, the sheriff’s office executed 46 Baker Acts, a 30 percent increase over the past three years of such detentions. “When we respond to an incident where there’s a potential for a mental health issue, our deputies have to evaluate it, determine whether it meets the Baker Act criteria”—that is, whether the individual is a threat to himself or herself or to others, thus compelling the individual’s detention against his or her will—“they then have to transport that person to Daytona, to Halifax [hospital], which is the receiving area. Sometimes that can take two to three hours, if there’s a back-up.” That’s two to three hours of a Flagler deputy’s time off the beat in the county. Some 80 percent of those incidents take place in Palm Coast.
The sheriff’s office applied and received a grant that starts March 1, enabling it to start a partnership with Stewart-Marchmann-Act Behavioral Healthcare, the mental health and addiction rehabilitations service whose Daytona facilities are the final destination of Baker-Acted individuals. The grant will cut the Halifax stop out of the equation, allowing deputies to take individuals to the Stewart-Marchamnn center in Bunnell, within minutes of the sheriff’s office. Personnel at Stewart-Marchmann then determines whether the individual will need the 48-hour detention requirement under the Baker Act, and if so, they would transfer the person to their facility in Daytona.
“That resource will now provide us with additional manpower that otherwise we lose in the transport of these Baker Acts,” Manfre said. “That’s really significant.” The incidence of Baker Acts tend to happen in bursts, at times overtaking deputies’ manpower in two or three different places at the same time, and sending all three deputies out of the county. That will end.
Manfre was touching on an issue of far broader reach and consequence on communities where the difficulties of mental health and age create hazardous human intersections. Few communities have developed effective ways of dealing with that emerging traffic. Council member Bill McGuire wanted to explore that issue as it relates to Palm Coast.
“We have an aging population in the city of Palm Coast,” McGuire said, “a lot of what people would be considered mentally deficient is relative to their age. Do you consider the sheriff’s actions to be a stopgap until a stronger measure can be put in place? Because I just don’t know if it’s fair to expect a deputy to conduct a psychiatric evaluation of somebody that they’ve apprehended. What’s the big picture, what’s down the road for people that look like they’re candidates for being Baker Acted?”
Manfre gave some limited assurances to McGuire, but later discussed specifically where and how some communities are creatively tackling the issue. Locally, it’s not a new task for deputies, and they use their discretion. “They don’t Baker Act unless all the criteria is there,” Manfre said, though he had acknowledged earlier in his presentation that deputies are not trained for such psychiatric emergencies. At times it can be dementia, Alzheimer’s, drug or alcohol addiction that’s creating the emergency. None of these instances fit Baker Act criteria.
McGuire’s concern is with an aging population that could at some point overwhelm the sheriff’s office with people who suffer from dementia, for example.
“I don’t see it being overwhelming,” Manfre said, grappling with the broader picture, “but I do think that we’re going to have to continue as a community to talk about these mental health issues in greater amount, not just here but throughout the country because the entire population is aging and they are staying alive much later, into the 90s, so it is going to be an issue we’re going to have to talk about and the state is going to have to weigh in on this and provide some relief to communities on these mental health issues, which they really have abrogated, not only here in Florida, but throughout the country. They’ve abrogated these issues. In some places, like Orlando, this may be a next, step, is creating mental health courts, because so much crime is related to mental health issues, they’ve created separate mental health courts where basically those courts oversee people who are not taking their medications or aren’t receiving proper treatment and order those people into them as opposed to into our jail facilities. Our jail facilities are not a place where people get competent treatment for these kind of diseases. That’s I think a step that we’ve talked about inside the circuit, about a mental health court, where you have a judge who’s specially trained and health care professionals who can deal with these cases rather than criminalize them.”
Council member Bill Lewis broadened the issue by perceptively including the return of millions of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who have serious and often untreated mental health issues, as well as the persistence of homelessness. A disproportionate number of homeless people have mental health problems.
“It hasn’t really impacted our community as much as others,” Manfre said, “but again the courts are trying to not use incarceration as the first line of defense when they deal with veterans’ issues, when they act out because of post traumatic stress syndrome or other issues that they have. So they’re actually talking about veterans’ courts or other courts, a court within a court where you address those veterans’ issues, and get the federal government involved to make sure our veterans are getting all the care they deserve based on their a service to our country.”
Manfre is familiar with the “tent cities” of homeless in woods along Palm Coast Parkway, which the sheriff’s office monitors to ensure that the homeless don’t become a nuisance to residents, though Manfre has resisted taking a heavy-handed approach: he is more comfortable talking to the homeless and understanding their genesis, as he does when he goes on bike patrols, than arrest them.
In a distantly relating matter, Manfre also pointed out a three-year grant the sheriff’s office secured to place five deputies at a time in “sort of a wolf-pack in the community,” which is to say, mostly in Palm Coast. (Mayor Jon Netts, his wits probably dulled by the morning meeting, justifiably drew terrible reviews when he suggested to the sheriff that “if you added a sixth officer you could call it a six-pack.”)
One such outlay took place over the past weekend, with roadblocks on Friday and Saturday, between 8 p.m. and 4 a.m., which netted six DUI arrests and three arrests for narcotics possession and open warrants. Deputies also issued four citations for speeding, four for driving with a suspended license and 14 non-moving violations, plus 51 written warnings to motorists.
Manfre has often spoken in the past, at least to reporters, of his distaste for heavy-handed policing that results in ticketing with every stop, favoring verbal or written warnings instead, which he says have a very effective way of changing drivers’ behavior.