EDITOR'S NOTE: This is part of a multiple-part series focused on Georgia’s mental health crisis.
Mental health issues touch every segment of a community, including the court system and those working in law enforcement circles on a daily basis.
Mental health issues have greatly impacted all eight counties within the Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit, including Milledgeville and Baldwin County.
“This is a huge issue in our circuit for both our law enforcement and court systems,” Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit District Attorney Stephen A. Bradley told The Union-Recorder.
Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office Detective Capt. Brad King agrees.
“The problem is there is no readily available remedy because we intervene when basically the law is broken,” said King, who heads the criminal investigations division at the sheriff’s office. “So, our jail staff and the medical staff back there has to make arrangements to try to either supply proper medication or to actually get a diagnosis and then properly medicate that person under a doctor’s order.”
The most common thread scene by jail personnel and other law enforcement officers at the Baldwin County Law Enforcement Center is people who do not take their prescribed medication, King said.
“So, what happens is they kind of wean themselves off or quit cold turkey taking their prescribed medication and they wind up getting into crisis, break the law of some kind, and end up incarcerated,” King said. “At that point, we’re then obligated to for their well-being, our staff and other inmates to properly medicate that person.”
Once the person gets back on a medication regimen, they leave the confines of the jail for a period of time to go into the court system, King explained.
“For us, it’s a double, and maybe even a triple-edged sword, because one, technically the function of law enforcement was not designed to be mental health advocates,” King said. “We have to take on that role because we run a jail.”
Although they’ve always been connected in some way, mental health issues are heavily connected to the law enforcement side, King said.
“It’s that way, in my opinion, because of a lack of a support system, just from a street standpoint where a person could just go to a facility and say, I need some help,” King said.
Bradley pointed out that he often hears from the families of mentally ill persons because they have made repeated attempts to get help to no avail.
“Law enforcement is dealing with mental illness on the street more than ever,” Bradley said. “The problem is the same for all of us when it comes to mental illness — the services are too limited and the options too few.”
Now, after years of scaling back publicly-funded offerings, Bradley contends there is a situation where the public is certainly not safer.
“And the largest mental health facilities are prisons and jails,” Bradley said. “Without being flip about it, that seems crazy.”
The veteran prosecutor’s office just dealt with a mental illness case that involved a murder trial. The defendant was convicted of the murder of a Milledgeville woman who was gunned down in the parking lot of a convenience store in Baldwin County. The victim was gunned down while walking with two of her grandchildren.
A judge sentenced the man responsible for the fatal shooting to life in prison, plus 40 years.
Unfortunately, everybody seems to associate the conversation about mental health and law enforcement when there is a horrific crime.
“The problem with that is that it is short-sited because we deal with this on a daily basis with much lesser crimes, but the outcome is still the same,” King said. “You’re incarcerated, you’re in the court system; you wind up on probation, or you wind up sentenced to DOC (Georgia Department of Corrections) — either way, your underlined mental illness is the catalyst for our involvement. You have the manpower issue, the costs, which is far reaching.”
And, depending on the nature of the crime itself, the victim might incur some cost or it remains an ongoing issue.
Since his law enforcement career began, King said he has seen the problem of mental illness drastically change.
“It’s not even comparable because I can’t really think about that because back then we had a facility — a place where people could go to get help,” King said. “Not to say there’s not places out there now. That’s not what I’m saying. But those places are limited.”
There are other factors as well, he said.
“So many things are different,” King said. “Our population has increased. There’s so many different factors to include in that time versus now. Our involvement from a law enforcement standpoint has certainly increased in the years since the statewide facilities have closed and the programs changed.”
From that particular aspect, King said he sees a dramatic increase because the involvement of law enforcement has increased.
Today, law enforcement approaches issues involving mentally disturbed people in a different way.
“The approach is certainly different at times, even though officer safety and citizen safety is always paramount,” King said. “And the safety of the mentally disturbed person is paramount.” Nevertheless, from time to time, the approach is a little different.
When asked if Milledgeville and Baldwin County is a safe community overall, even though there are a lot of mental illness cases within the community, King responded.
“I don’t think our percentage would be any higher than anybody’s else’s,” King said, as far as sheer numbers are concerned. “I don’t know that we’re dealing with any more mentally ill issues than anybody else is. Naturally, like any other group, the larger the population, the larger group there is going to be.”
From the perspective of the size of Milledgeville and Baldwin County, along with the size of the sheriff’s office, King said he would contend there have been some horrific crimes that have occurred with some direct mental illness issue linked to them.
“I’m certain [if] you go to different states and talk with a guy in my same position and he’d probably tell you the same thing,” King said. “He’d probably say the same exact thing.”
King was quick to point out that people with mental health issues can't help it.
“Therefore, there needs to be a place where they can go — a mental institution where the medication is regulated, and your life is kinda regulated,” King said.
In cases such as those, he contends a person with mental illness has a greater chance of finding the necessary connection.
“Left to your own devices, you may not,” King said. “There should be a balance between the two.”
Bradley said he understands there are a number of intelligent people working on various issues related to mental illness.
“We wish them well and support them any way that we can,” Bradley said. “For everyone’s sake, something needs to change.”
King, meanwhile, said he truly believes the fact that there are not more institutional programs inside a clinical environment with resources available is a disservice to everyone.
“It’s a disservice to everybody, but mainly it’s a disservice to the mentally ill [who] with structure and proper medication could have a whole different life, and their families could have a whole different life,” King said.
“Unfortunately, if they get off their medications, they can become a handful,” King said. “That is a recipe for someone to get hurt.”