$1.2M grant funds crisis center for mentally ill suspects

Law enforcement agents in Kent County receive mental health training. (May 8, 2017)

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Kent County is getting a new way to help people with mental health problems, including those who may have committed crimes because of their struggle.

A $1.2 million grant is paying for a new 24/7 crisis center so mentally ill offenders don’t have to be booked into the jail. The Metro Health Hospital Foundation, Kent County Chiefs of Police and Network 180 are providing an additional $50,000 for training to help officers de-escalate situations before they become dangerous.

Earlier this year, Kent County sheriff’s deputies say they were forced to shoot and kill a mentally ill man who was threatening them. Just last week in Oceana County, a man admitted to driving into a store in Hart. He’s  the same man who drove into the U.S. Coast Guard post in Grand Haven a few years ago and was found legally insane. There are many more minor crimes that don’t make the news.

“There is a huge pool of people that come and go, come and go. over and over again,” Kent County Sheriff Larry Stelma said.

Stelma said that on any given day, the jail has between 1,000 and 1,200 inmates. He said 20 to 30 percent of the jail population has some sort of mental illness and at least 10 percent suffers from a serious mental crisis.

Currently, when someone who is mentally ill commits a crime, there are two options: jail or the emergency room.

“Neither setting is beneficial to the person in crisis,” Stelma said. “Neither setting helps the citizens in this community and ultimately the person goes right back on the street and it happens all over again.”

The sheriff added that it’s a huge cost. He said taxpayers pay millions of dollars every year to house people with mental illnesses in the jail. Doctors in the ER get tied up when they are dropped off there.

The new crisis facility will be added to the Network180 building in Grand Rapids. There, people will be served by mental professionals so they can get proper treatment.

“It’s a huge step forward and I think it’s a step in the right direction,” Stelma said.

The crisis center will open in October.

Law enforcement training started Monday.

“We are really good at practicing for when things go bad,” said Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety Lt. Rafael Diaz, who is teaching the course. “So we learn to shoot when we practice shooting, defensive tactics, we learn how to punch, how to strike.”

But he said that what he calls “softer” skills are left up to the officers to generate.

The 40-hour course will educate law enforcement personnel about mental illness and teach them de-escalation scenarios to use in the field.

“The more we understand about how those illnesses play out, what drives their behaviors, the more we can interact with them in a safe way,” Diaz said.

Network180, a community mental health authority for Kent County, estimates one in every 25 people in the county live with serious mental illness. This grant is the county’s way of helping those people get back to living productive lives.

“We want to do our best, but sometimes we have an information gap, and so this is designed to give officers that information and fill that void,” Diaz said.

***CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed training funding to the grant.  We regret this error, which has since been corrected.***