Michigan lawmakers are working on what they call a “common sense” solution to a problem that has tied the hands of conservationists for years.
Senate Bill 1172 would give conservators the same authority as the state police to admit a person requiring a mental health assessment into protective custody.
The bill was introduced by Senator Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, who said during testimony at a Senate Committee on Health and Human Services Policy earlier this month that the Michigan Department of Natural Resources had requested the change.
“People sometimes go to state parks or public lands, unfortunately too often to hurt themselves,” Chang said. “Currently, conservators must call in law enforcement to take the property into protective custody or for evaluation. However, these officers may not have witnessed the same behavior as maintenance workers and therefore may not feel comfortable making that decision.”
Currently, a “peace officer” under the Mental Health Code is defined as a Michigan State Police or local law enforcement officer.
The bill would change this definition to include law enforcement officers licensed under the Michigan Law Enforcement Standards Commission, such as the Department of Natural Resources.
Chief Dave Shaw and Sergeant Damon Owens of the DNR gave their own testimony during a November 11 committee hearing.
DNR officers patrol all 83 counties across Michigan, Shaw said, and are often the only law enforcement agencies available at odd hours and in certain regions of the state.
He said officers are most likely to encounter people in need of mental health services in areas with a larger population, such as in Southeast Michigan.
Owens, who oversees and patrols Detroit’s Belle Isle, knows firsthand that mental health crises in state parks are unfortunately a common occurrence. In the 10 days between the start of the month and the committee meeting, Owens said he had seen three cases of people needing mental health services.
He said he saw drug overdoses and suicides, and people even jumped off the Belle Isle Bridge into the Detroit River, which can be fatal.
“Belle Isle is a beautiful park in the city of Detroit,” said Owens. “Unfortunately, because of the beauty and serenity, we face a lot of mental health issues.”
Protective custody by a peace officer is temporary, and while not the same as arrest, may be carried out with or without the consent of the individual if necessary for the safety and well-being of the individual or society.
Owens said that through verbal coercion, he and other officers are sometimes able to persuade people to voluntarily receive help by entering protective custody. He explained that when people don’t want to volunteer, they can get nervous, which puts the safety of others at even greater risk.
Had this bill been signed into law, Owens said there would be no doubt that the person needed help.
This proposed authority would also include campus police and travel police, said Taylor Ridderbusch, DNR’s legislative liaison.
“They don’t have that authority and they just want to be able to help people, and by doing that, it seems like a simple solution,” said Ridderbusch,
The committee sent the draft to the Senate with a recommendation for its adoption. The bill would need to pass both the Senate and House of Representatives and be signed by Governor Gretchen Whitmer to become law.
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