Law enforcement and mental health have been in the news a lot recently. We know that a large percentage of the calls that our local police must respond to are not strictly speaking about criminal matters but are related to behavioral and health issues, substance abuse, domestic conflict, and a general breakdown of people’s sense of security and well-being. Very often, our officers are called on to play the roles of social workers and therapists. Some take on this responsibility willingly and well, but it is hardly fair to expect that of them.
Some towns have tried to help the police cope with mental health dilemmas by providing support in the form of community navigators who can guide people in trouble toward treatment. But effective treatment is appallingly scarce — as we have seen, for example, in the extreme shortage of hospital beds for suicidal young people on Cape Cod.
The relationship between law enforcement and mental health has become an issue in the current race for Cape & Islands district attorney, as K.C. Myers wrote last week. Rob Galibois, the Democratic candidate, says the solution is to create a “mental health session” in the local courts to divert people away from the criminal justice system and toward treatment for addiction and other ills. It works in other counties, he says, but “I have not heard anyone in this present office demanding a mental health session” — meaning not under Michael O’Keefe, the current D.A.
His Republican opponent, Dan Higgins, says O’Keefe already considers the mental health of defendants and screens them to determine who should be prosecuted and who should “have their cases dismissed” and be “given a path to treatment.” Higgins promises to continue the D.A.’s current policies, and O’Keefe has endorsed him.
It is impossible to read these exchanges between the candidates without thinking of the deaths of three people in the Barnstable County jail this past summer, two by suicide and one from a drug overdose, as we reported in the Independent two weeks ago. And it is also not possible to keep from reflecting on the performance of D.A. O’Keefe and Barnstable County Sheriff James Cummings in the recent death by suicide of Adam Howe of Truro in a New Bedford jail cell.
We still don’t know why O’Keefe was unable to get Howe admitted to Bridgewater State Hospital. He has told different stories about it to different news organizations. And we still don’t know why Cummings, who runs a jail with a one-to-one ratio of guards to prisoners, refuses to admit those who are arrested “if they are suicidal, sick, or detoxing,” as he told Myers.
We have tried to get clearer answers to these questions, but these top lawmen are experts at not answering. Dan Higgins told the audience at his debate with Galibois that he plans to answer the phone when reporters call “24/7.” Afterward, he didn’t return any of our follow-up calls.