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Police shouldn’t transport mental health patients

Wendy Newton, 45, of Shallotte, N.C., and Nicolette Green, 43, of Myrtle Beach, S.C., tragically lost their lives in the back of an Horry County, S.C., sheriff’s van in the flooding of Hurricane Florence. The two women were in the law enforcement vehicle not as criminal detainees, but as patients seeking mental health care.

Both women had voluntarily sought mental health treatment earlier that day. According to media reports, the van transporting Newton and Green an hour’s drive to mental health facilities in Darlington traversed flooded streets which were closed to the public due to the rapidly rising water. Both women perished as the van was swept away in floodwaters.

The two deputies inside were able to escape, but Newton and Green were trapped inside the van, behind caged doors. By the time a rescue crew arrived 45 minutes later, it was too late. The bodies were recovered through a hole cut in the roof of the submerged van the following day.

There are ongoing investigations into the deaths. These women’s deaths were unnecessary, preventable, and sadly could easily be repeated in North Carolina. Here, as in South Carolina, local law enforcement agencies routinely transport individuals to hospitals for mental health treatment. It is also permissible for those law enforcement agents to restrain individuals they deem may pose a threat.

The practice of using law enforcement and restraints to transport individuals seeking mental health treatment criminalizes mental illness, stigmatizes persons with mental health disabilities, and traumatizes individuals in need of care. The practice is a remnant from hundreds of years ago when people with mental health disabilities were wrongfully treated as criminals rather than people with a treatable illness. It reinforces the stigma that people with disabilities are dangerous, and, as Dorothea Dix noted 170 years ago, “plac[es] the innocent on a level with the guilty.”

This is a critical time to change the too-common practice of law enforcement transporting individuals with mental health disabilities. In June, the N.C. General Assembly ratified and Gov. Cooper signed into law a process to change how transportation for mental health patients shall be done. Although these amendments made some improvements to the involuntary commitment system, they reaffirm the use of restraints, such as handcuffs, in transporting mental health patients is within the discretion of the transporting officers.

Local management entities/managed care organizations are now responsible for implementing community crisis services plans that incorporate transportation agreements. These agreements designate who transports involuntarily committed patients, offering the opportunity for safer, less traumatic transport. Non-law enforcement transporters must undergo training that addresses the use of force, restraints, and patients’ rights during transportation. Despite providing nearly all transportation for persons involuntarily committed, law enforcement officers are not required to undergo this training.

Action is urgently needed to respond to our neighbors in mental health crisis in a manner that promotes recovery. To prevent senseless deaths and untold human suffering, and to obtain better mental health outcomes, the local management entities/managed care organizations must make alternate transportation arrangements.

We must also make critically necessary investments in local, community-based mental health services that focus on preventative care, along with a comprehensive response systems.

Virginia Knowlton-Marcus is executive director of Disability Rights North Carolina.