Arizona police sign on to White House plan to cut jail populations

The White House’s Data-Driven Justice Initiative is a three-pronged approach to reduce conflicts between police and the mentally ill, identify those who might have criminal or mental health issues and get low-risk prisoners out of local jails while they await trial. (Photo by Tony Webster via Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON – Pima County Sheriff Chris Nanos is convinced that his department might have prevented the 2011 shooting of then-Rep. Gabby Giffords if it had the mental health resources it does now.

“We learned after the fact that he (shooter Jared Loughner) had been standing there in his house talking to a blank wall,” Nanos said. “Maybe that MHST (Mental Health Support Team) team would have been able to divert him and get him the help he needed before anything happened.”

That’s why Nanos is excited about the Data-Driven Justice Initiative unveiled Thursday by the White House, which includes a focus on mental health as one of three prongs of an effort to reduce local jail populations.

Nanos’ department is one of three Arizona police agencies – along with the Flagstaff Police Department and Coconino County Sheriff’s Department – that have committed to the program, along with 64 other agencies around the nation.

The program calls on agencies to train officers to handle mental health crises, urges police and health officials to share data on people who have crossed their paths recently, and encourages use of data-based tools to assess risk and release low-risk people awaiting trial in jail simply because they can’t make bail.

White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett said on a press call Thursday that she hopes to have more than 100 police agencies committed to the program by the end of the year, calling criminal justice reform a “top priority” for the Obama administration.

The White House said scores of private tech firms, large and small, have already committed to assist with data elements of the program.

Knoxville, Tennessee, Police Chief David Rausch welcomed the program’s focus on changing the way police handle mental health issues.

“We can’t arrest ourselves out of these problems,” Rausch said on the White House call.

The Coconino County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, which committed Flagstaff police and Coconino County Sheriff to the program, is scheduled to hold a news conference Friday to discuss their participation.

But Nanos said he’s already seen the benefits in his county.

After the Loughner attack – which killed six people and injured 13 – the Pima sheriff’s office created the Mental Health Support Team. It aims to divert mentally ill people who are in crisis to behavioral health or social services, rather than arresting them.

“A lot of these people need nothing more than just some medical attention,” Nanos said of those the team helps.

Nanos cited one young man in particular as a success story for the mental health team.

“We were receiving almost daily (911) calls from him for three to four weeks,” Nanos said. “MHST got involved and found out the issue was with his case worker.”

The team called local mental health authorities, who switched out his case manager. Nanos said the man never called again.

Nanos said Pima’s program is different from most in that, in addition to the support team, mental health training is included in police academy training for officers coming into the department.

“They need to be prepared coming out of the academy,” Nanos said. “I have an academy of 40 young men and women. None of them wanted to become psychiatrists, but they’re going to have to deal with mental illness on the job.”

The Pima County department is also trying to reduce the number of inmates by working with local mental health service agencies to intervene before mentally ill people end up in jail.

“We see too many that come in here for nothing more than substance abuse problems or minor misdemeanors,” Nanos said. “This really is a medical problem, not a criminal one.”

Nanos said the program is an innovative, but also extremely simple, solution to an important problem.

“I can either ask my taxpayers for another quarter of a million dollars to build another jail, or I can look and say, ‘Huh, who’s in my jail?'” Nanos said.

But above all, he said the program is about protecting public safety.

“This is about the safety of the public as a whole,” Nanos said. “The majority of mass shootings have an element of mental illness.”