Howard police expansion of mental health unit seen as complementary to statewide 'red flag' law

Jess Nocera
Contact ReporterHoward County Times

Howard County police recently increased the number of officers assigned to the department’s mental health unit, a move the police chief said was done, in part, to respond to the state’s new red flag law.

The law allows enforcement officials, family members, mental health providers and others to request temporary removal of guns from individuals if they believe they pose an immediate danger to themselves or others. Approved by the General Assembly in April, the bill enabling “red flags” — also known as emergency risk protection orders, or ERPOs — took effect in October.

That same month county police expanded its mental health unit, from one police officer and one mental health professional to three police officers and one mental health professional.

“We had a discussion as this law was approaching,” said Police Chief Gary Gardner. He said the department needed “something to oversee and analyze the ERPO process, and it was best to have the mental health unit oversee it.”

Gardner, who announced this month that he would retire at the end of the year, said the red flag law is “designed to provide relief for those who would be at risk to themselves or others,” and allows police to go to an person’s home and seize firearms temporarily.

“This is done immediately, if someone is deemed as an immediate threat we go in and serve that order anywhere from one to 30 firearms, whatever is in the house,” he said.

Since the law was enacted, police in Howard County have handled six protection orders and seized three firearms as of Dec. 12, according to department spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn. She declined to provide details of the cases, noting the “law comes with a confidentiality clause, due to the nature of many of these incidents.”

Statewide, the first full month of the program saw 114 requests to remove firearms from individuals, including 14 in neighboring Baltimore County, 19 in Anne Arundel, two in Carroll County, seven in Montgomery County and nine in Prince George’s County. Updated numbers were not immediately available.

Llewellyn said that in Howard, members of the police department’s mental health unit have discussed the process for handling protection orders with Howard district court judges as well as the county’s health department. In addition, a meeting on the subject is planned with the county school system; the police department already has a mental health representative on the superintendent's mental health sub-cabinet, she said.

The county’s expanded mental health unit includes two sworn police officers and one sergeant. The additional positions were reorganized from vacant positions elsewhere in the department — Llewellyn said there was no additional cost. She said in an email “there is nothing slated in the budget at this time” to make any additional changes to the unit, either adding or reducing members.

Initially formed in 2013 under then-police chief Bill McMahon, the department’s mental health unit addresses police calls related to mental health crises, suicides, suicide attempts and emergency petitions — instances where people are taken to a hospital by police officers if they pose a risk to themselves or someone else.

Gardner said the purpose for establishing the unit was to fill the need for the department “to do something on the front end” for people in need.

“These individuals, unless there was a crime committed, did not need to be in the criminal justice system,” he said. He also noted that officers deal with mental health issues on a day-to-day basis, and being able to follow up on cases to keep individuals out of the criminal justice system, as well as working with psychologists and family members, is a benefit.

The police mental health unit unit aims to keep “the individual safe, the community safe and making sure they [the individuals] are getting the best treatment possible,” said Genny LaPorte, the civilian mental health liaison to the department and a licensed health profession.

“We do a lot of support for families,” she said. “We want to make they are connected to support and great community resources.”

Officers and dispatchers in the department undergo 40 hours of training to become certified members of the Crisis Intervention Team, a group that interacts with people who have mental health issues. The training is conducted with the local Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center and the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

In addition, every new recruit receives more than 30 hours of training on mental illness at the police academy, and veteran officers receive refresher training sessions every three years, police said.

“We want people to be trained, educated and be able to be in the field and recognize mental health issues,” Gardner said. “There are a lot of resources out there, it’s just a matter of getting folks connected to those resources.”

The county force also has a 911 flagging program, where officers can flag residents homes where it is known a person suffers from mental health, according to Maj. Ellsworth Jones, deputy chief in operations command.

“Before the officer gets to the house they will know they may be interacting with someone that may have something they want us to know about,” Jones said.

Separate from the mental health unit is the police department’s mobile crisis team that operates out of Grassroots, an intervention center that provides 24-hour crisis intervention services, community education and emergency and traditional shelter.With reporting from the Baltimore Sun.

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