TN: Davidson County flags warrants for mental health

Editor’s Note.  This article was published in The Tennessean on November 6th.  It’s goes to the heart of how to identify people with mental health issues during the arresting process and see to it that they receive the proper help in the criminal justice system.

Davidson County general sessions court is now flagging some arrest warrants to alert police if the person being sought suffers from a mental health issue.

The practice, which started last week in mental health court and veterans court, aims at making warrant arrests a safer practice for both suspects and police, said Metro Police Lt. Jeff Bauer, who oversees the department’s criminal warrants division.

During a person’s first court appearance after an arrest, lawyers can ask to have a judge send the case to mental health court or veterans court. Once there, the defendant must abide by special conditions made by the judge while the case is pending. If the defendant violates those conditions, the judge issues a warrant.

Under the new program, court officials will stamp the warrant to alert police that the defendant is on the mental health docket or veterans treatment docket and whether the person has substance abuse or mental health issues.

“It creates an alert in the computer system to let people out in the field know they may react differently … display bizarre behavior because of their circumstance,” Bauer said.

The goal, he said, is to help distinguish a person’s hostility from behaviors that may be influenced by drugs, alcohol or mental health problems.

“We don’t want to get into a situation and observe odd behavior as aggression,” Bauer said. “The person could be on medication or intoxicated. Having that added knowledge, we could bring an extra officer to the scene of the arrest or perhaps ask the person to come outside the home instead of entering it not knowing what’s inside or what to expect.”

When the person is booked into jail, an auto-generated email is sent to the judge, who decides if there is a valid reason the person missed court or violated probation.

“In my courts we see behavioral issues, substance abuse, or, in the case of veterans, traumatic brain injuries or PTSD,” said Judge Melissa Blackburn, who oversees Mental Health Court and Veterans Court in Davidson County. “Having that information available before an officer is involved with the client not only helps the officer more appropriately deal with any problems that may arise, it also improves safety of police to fully understand the situation and react as required to safeguard the safety of both the officer and the client.

“As mental health issues become more prevalent in the community,” she added, “it’s helpful to us to have a strong partner in the police department with leadership willing to look at new solutions to a growing concern.”

As of Friday, Bauer said Metro police had more than 29,000 active warrants on file.

So far, Bauer said, the court has been generating about 10 flagged warrants per week.

Reach Natalie Neysa Alund at 615-259-8072. Follow her on Twitter @nataliealund.

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