Michigan lawmakers are working on what they call a “common sense” solution to a problem that has left conservation officials’ hands tied for years.
Senate Bill 1172 would give conservation officers the same authority as state police to take a person who needs a mental health evaluation into protective custody.
The bill was introduced by Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, who said during testimony at a Senate Health Policy and Human Services Committee hearing this month that the change was requested by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
“People walk into state parks or public lands sometimes, unfortunately, too often to hurt themselves,” Chang said. “Currently, conservation officers must call a law enforcement agency to take the site into protective custody or for assessment. However, these officers may not have witnessed the same behavior as conservation officers and therefore may not feel comfortable making this decision.
Currently, a “peace officer” under the mental health code is defined as an officer of the Michigan State Police or local law enforcement agency.
The bill would amend that definition to include officers working for a law enforcement agency licensed under the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards, such as the Department of Natural Resources.
Chief Dave Shaw and DNR Sergeant Damon Owens provided their own testimony during the commission’s Nov. 11 hearing.
DNR officers patrol all 83 counties in Michigan, Shaw said, and are often the only law enforcement available at odd hours and in certain regions of the state.
He said officers mostly encounter individuals in need of mental health services in areas where there is a larger population, such as in Southeast Michigan.
Owens, who manages and patrols Detroit’s Belle Isle, knows firsthand that mental health crises in state parks are unfortunately common. In the 10 days between the start of the month and the commission meeting, Owens said he saw three cases of individuals needing mental health services.
He said he has seen drug overdoses and suicides, with people even jumping off the Belle Isle Bridge into the Detroit River, which can be fatal.
“Belle Isle is a beautiful park in the city of Detroit,” Owens said. “Unfortunately, because of the beauty and tranquility, 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 done with or without the person’s consent if necessary for the safety and welfare of the person or the public.
Owens said that through verbal coercion, he and other officers are sometimes able to convince people to voluntarily get help by entering protective custody. When people don’t want to volunteer, he explained, they can become agitated, further putting the safety of others at risk.
If this bill is signed into law, Owens said there will be no doubt about the need for the individual to get help.
That proposed authority would also extend to campus police and traffic police, said Taylor Ridderbusch, legislative representative for the DNR.
“They don’t have that power, and they just want the opportunity to help people, and by doing that, it seems like an easy decision,” Ridderbusch said.
The committee sent the bill to the Senate with a recommendation that it be passed. The bill must pass both the Senate and the House and be signed by Governor Gretchen Whitmer to become law.
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