Sheriffs in rural counties call for better mental health call response protocols

Published: Apr. 7, 2023 at 7:10 PM CDT
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EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (WEAU) - It’s the type of call that comes with risks for law enforcement and those they are trying to help, but sheriffs in Western Wisconsin are calling on legislators to make an already difficult day for someone in crisis a little easier.

“Imagine your loved one calling for help. And now they’re having to be place in law enforcement custody for anywhere up to 8 - 12 hours,” said Pepin County Sheriff Joel Wener.

He is talking about emergency detentions for those in crisis that pose a danger to themselves and or others.

The protocols surrounding that though are the issue, and that is why he and the Trempealeau County sheriff took the trip to the state capitol in Madison to call for change.

“We’re trying to give them some feedback, some ideas on how we could take the person in crisis out of law enforcement custody and transfer them to a mental health professional’s custody,” said Sheriff Wener.

He also said those in crisis end up in police custody for nine hours on average.

In that time, they undergo a medical check up before police drops them off at Winnebago Mental Health Institute in Oshkosh, all the way in Eastern Wisconsin.

That is why Sheriff Brett Semingson and Sheriff Wener advocate for regional facilities equipped with an emergency room to speed the process up.

He said this also keeps law enforcement agencies from other counties from having to drop off people at Winnebago Mental Health Institute.

“By far this is more of a humane thing than a budget thing. I just think it’s awful that somebody that is having a bad day all of a sudden has to be in police custody., before they get help,” said Sheriff Semingson.

He said the protocols are a problem for rural counties as opposed to urban ones like Brown County.

“They have the hospitals within their own county, and the processes that they have allow for those crises situations to be cleared up within the matter of a couple of hours,” said Sheriff Semignson.

The sheriffs say the current situation is not good for everyone involved.

“They’re already experiencing crisis and now they think they are in trouble with law enforcement,” said Wener.

“And that’s just way too long. Not only for the agencies but it’s very draining for the person in crisis as well,” said Semingson.

Both are hoping for change to happen before they retire.

They also add that it is uncommon for criminal charges to be involved in emergency detentions for people in crisis.