A draft of our Friday editorial.
Eighteen calls a day. For the first six months of 2012, Boise police officers have fielded 3,248 mental health calls.
Eighteen times a day, officers who work on the front line of public safety also find themselves on the front line of mental health counseling and intervention.
Police officers already have a demanding enough job. They are expected to respond to dangerous situations and make split-second decisions — perhaps the worst possible equation for dealing with a drug overdose or a suicide threat.
Especially since mental health counseling doesn’t fall within a police officer’s skill set.
“The worst thing for me is going into situations by myself,” Boise Bench Patrol Officer Gary Wiggins told the Statesman recently. “Not because I’m worried for my safety, but because I don’t know what to do for these people.”
Officers like Wiggins are working solo, in part, because they receive little backup from state government.
For several years, Idaho has been the only state in the nation without its own suicide prevention hotline, meaning calls have gone to out-of-state counselors who may have limited knowledge of services available in Idaho. A state hotline may be up and running by this fall, after a six-year absence — thanks to a combination of private donations and state funding.
Actually, this may prove to be a good thing: a broad funding base could provide a buffer from the vagaries of state budgeting.
Speaking of budget vagaries, Idaho ranks No. 47 on mental health care spending. And when the state skimps on proactive programs, it’s more likely that police officers will have to respond — after one person’s problem has degenerated into a crisis.
It doesn’t seem coincidental that, as Idaho has cut and whittled its way through a three-year budget crisis, mental health calls to Boise police have increased. From 2009 to 2010, the increase was 9.1 percent. In 2011, it was an additional 12.8 percent. Boise police project an increase of another 1.9 percent increase for 2012 — a slower rate of increase, but an increase nonetheless.
This responsibility is shifting to overburdened local police officers. This cost is shifting to the unpopular local property tax.
A compassionate community provides effective, preventive mental health services. Clearly, this falls under the heading of a proper role of government. But this role is more properly filled by specialists with the time and training for the job — not by police officers, of whom plenty is already asked.