Justice Matters asks Lawrence, Douglas County leaders to commit on affordable housing, criminal justice review

April 13, 2016. The Lawrence Journal-World.

City and county leaders expressed support — but didn’t make specific commitments — on what was asked of them in front of almost 2,000 people at an annual Justice Matters assembly Wednesday.

Lawrence affordable housing conference explores ways to find funding for new housing options

July 17, 2015. Lawrence Journal-World.

Affordable housing is difficult to find in Lawrence, attendees at a one-day conference Friday to explore ways to increase the number of affordable residences were told.

Almost 40 percent of Lawrence residents spend more than 30 percent of their

Lawrence police aim to have all officers complete Crisis Intervention Training to address those in mental health crises

July 11, 2015. Lawrence Journal-World.

When 18-year-old Joseph Jennings, of Ottawa, was fatally shot by Ottawa police officers in August 2014, it was the end of a life riddled by seizures, migraines and depression, Jennings’ aunt, Brandy Smith, said after the incident.

Joseph Jennings, shown here in a portrait from the 2011 Oskaloosa Junior-Senior High School yearbook, was killed in a shooting involving Ottawa and Franklin County authorities.

Lawrence Police Chief Tarik Khatib says that his department can learn from the relationship between the Ferguson, Mo., police department and the community. Khatib is requiring his officers to read the U.S. Department of Justice’s report on the Ferguson case.

Lawrence Police Chief Tarik Khatib says that his department can learn from the relationship between the Ferguson, Mo., police department and the community. Khatib is requiring his officers to read the U.S. Department of Justice’s report on the Ferguson case.

Smith said her nephew had attempted suicide at her home 12 hours before his death. He’d been admitted to the hospital following the attempt in an apparent mental health crisis, and had been released just three hours before his confrontation with police.

“He was very intelligent, loved animals and his family,” Smith told the Journal-World last year. “He will be missed.”

A concerned citizen had called 911, reporting a young man was “waving a handgun and putting the weapon in his waistband” in the Orscheln Farm and Home parking lot, 2008 S. Princeton St. in Ottawa, the Journal-World reported after the incident. When officers arrived, they believed there was an imminent danger when Jennings pulled an item from his waistband and pointed it toward them.

The officers opened fire. They would later discover that the suspicious item was a pair of sunglasses, according to a report issued by the Franklin County Attorney’s Office on the death.

The shooting was ruled justified.

Stepping in early

In Lawrence, police are making strides to de-escalate situations before use of force becomes necessary, especially when it comes to mental health crises. At the Nehemiah Action Assembly at the Lied Center in May, sponsored by local faith coalition Justice Matters, Lawrence Police Chief Tarik Khatib told the 1,700 attendees that he planned to have all Lawrence officers within three years complete a 40-hour training course, known as Crisis Intervention Training, on how to handle encounters with people in mental health crises.

That timeline has sped up recently, with the goal now to have all officers trained by August 2017. Khatib said in an email that a plan for the training has been in the works for “a couple years,” but Justice Matters’ efforts in advocating for and engaging in discussion about Crisis Intervention Training, or CIT, “helped (the police department) move up our time table for that 100 percent accomplishment.”

“I was first asked about (CIT) when I became the chief, so you can see how long we have been working on it,” Khatib said in an email. “There are many training needs for the limited amount of time and the community discussion and interest has helped us focus and try to make this happen sooner.”

Crisis Intervention Training for law enforcement focuses on defusing crisis situations, Justice Matters organizer Ben MacConnell said. Justice Matters had spent six months researching community mental health solutions, which prompted the group’s interest in having CIT in Lawrence.

“CIT helps folks understand the underlying issues beneath the situation,” MacConnell said. “They can ascertain if it’s not really a criminal problem but a mental health issue.”

While each community develops its own CIT curriculum to address local needs, the basic approach is outlined by the International Crisis Intervention Team. Training consists of 40 hours of in-classroom training, including education on mental illnesses and their signs and symptoms, overviews of local mental health organizations and their services and training in crisis de-escalation techniques.

Last year, the department helped form the Douglas County CIT council to help define the department’s training, which will start in September and continue through August 2017. According to Khatib, the department has already accomplished its goal to have all officers trained in mental health first-aid.

“We know we can’t train everyone at once, so the plan is to start with people that have an interest so as to build positive energy and momentum for the training among officers,” Khatib said in an email.

Avoiding tragedy

Police departments across the country have been adopting CIT plans for years. The Memphis, Tenn., police department implemented CIT in 1988. Since then, injuries to those suffering from mental illnesses have decreased 40 percent, and officer injury rates have dropped by 85 percent, according to CIT International.

MacConnell said a major benefit of CIT is that it prepares law enforcement to better avoid tragic outcomes like Jennings’.

“There are police all over the county shooting people and getting lawsuits when it is someone with a mental illness,” MacConnell said. “(CIT) pushes up against classic police training where (officers) want to take control with a commanding voice. There are situations where that’s not appropriate.”

Fortunately, Lawrence has not seen an incident like Jennings’ in recent years, but Lawrence certainly has its share of mental health crises. A May 22 city staff memo presented to city commissioners said that between Jan. 1 and April 30, officers responded to approximately 750 calls related to suicide-related calls or requests to check an individual’s welfare.

The Rev. Kathy Williams, Justice Matters leader and pastor at First United Methodist Church, said she admires that the Lawrence police take a proactive, instead of reactive, position on addressing community needs. Khatib, for example, has ordered all officers to read the U.S. Department of Justice’s report on the police department in Ferguson, Mo., following the controversial police shooting of an unarmed man there.

“The sad thing is police departments often get serious about this training only after an untrained officer mishandles a mental health call resulting in death and lawsuits,” Williams said. “Fortunately, our police chief would rather prevent a tragedy than wait for one to happen.”

Moving forward, Justice Matters hopes to see Douglas County open a mental health crisis center, mental health court and diversion program.

County officials are currently studying options for expansion of the county jail and the construction of a separate intervention center, where nonviolent inmates can be diverted away from the jail for mental health crises or substance abuse problems.

MacConnell and Williams said the CIT and a mental health emergency intervention center would complement each other, allowing officers to further help those suffering while also cutting down the Douglas County Jail population numbers.

“We were astounded to discover how much responsibility related to mental health has fallen onto our police, courts and jails,” said Williams. “We definitely have a lot of work to do to get beyond crisis management. But we have to start somewhere and (getting all officers through CIT) is a strong first step.”

In hopes of creating diversion program for mentally ill, Douglas County leaders leave Texas with much to consider

April 12, 2015. The Lawrence Journal-World.

SAN ANTONIO — The vast system of help available to those suffering from mental illness or substance addiction in Bexar County, Texas, is impossible to replicate for a community the size of Douglas County. But already officials from Kansas have gleaned ideas and inspiration.

Friday, almost 20 officials from Douglas County government, law enforcement and health care agencies finished a day and a half of presentations, tours and discussions regarding San Antonio’s Center for Health Care Services, a nationally respected mental health system that has kept the nonviolent, mentally ill out of jail. The trip was arranged by Justice Matters, a local group of religious leaders focusing on justice issues.

Douglas County is currently researching how to best react to rising inmate populations and a greater demand to provide mental health care services to inmates in the county jail.

The project’s scope has yet to be determined, but officials expect an expansion of the county jail and the construction of a separate intervention center, where nonviolent inmates can be diverted away from the jail for mental health crises or substance abuse problems.


Among the ideas culled from the trip is including some type of transitional housing for the homeless to use after receiving care for a mental illness or substance abuse problems at an intervention center.

In San Antonio, officials toured a facility named the Restoration Center, which operates much like the crisis intervention center that officials have envisioned. Individuals may be dropped off by law enforcement to receive care; they may voluntarily enroll in a recovery program; or they may be part of a court program that allows them to avoid prosecution.

The facility is across the street from a separately run homeless shelter that can provide other services, such as transportation or obtaining identification. Also within walking distance is an affordable housing unit.

The setup has helped save the city and county governments nearly $10 million a year in jailing and hospital room costs, said Leon Evans, the CEO of CHCS. Bexar County also had the lowest recidivism rate, at 6.6 percent in 2012, in Texas, according to data provided by CHS.

David Hnatow, an emergency medical physician, said the surrounding campus has been crucial in the improvement of people who pass through the Restoration Center. When someone with substance abuse problems is taken to an emergency room and sobers up, “you’re out the door,” he said, whereas at the campus in San Antonio, a range of services is available.

After seeing the facilities, Douglas County Administrator Craig Weinaug and County Commissioner Nancy Thellman both said incorporating something similar might be necessary in Douglas County. They did not know how such an idea could manifest itself in the developing proposal for the project, but both thought it would be important for helping troubled individuals get back on solid ground.

Both expressed a desire to involve members of the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority in future discussions.

“If you just offer treatment, it isn’t going to be successful” in helping people get better, Weinaug said.

Police training

One aspect of a fluid system that keeps nonviolent mentally ill individuals out of jail is already a coming certainty in Lawrence.

That comes in the form of having a police force that understands how to recognize and deal with a suspect suffering from a mental health crisis and where that suspect belongs — a jail cell, emergency room or a mental health facility.

All San Antonio police are required to take 40 hours of crisis intervention training (CIT), which teaches them how to recognize and deal with mental health crises. Lawrence Police Chief Tarik Khatib said local law enforcement and health care professionals have been meeting for the past year to develop a training curriculum.

In September, it will be made available to all Douglas County law enforcement officers “who are interested,” Khatib said. Eventually it will be mandatory for Lawrence police.

“We’ve recognized the importance of it,” Khatib said.

Members of the San Antonio Police Department told the group of Douglas County officials that CIT will go a long way toward reducing physical force used by officers and building community trust. But in order for troubled individuals to have a chance at reversing their fortunes, a mental health intervention center is imperative.

“A facility like (the Restoration Center) is paramount,” said SAPD officer Joseph Smaro.

Gaps that need filling

During an hours-long discussion Friday among all the officials who made the trip, several people outlined a clear need to create a diversion program and what obstacles will have to be negotiated to create one.

District Attorney Charles Branson said his office tries to place those with mental illnesses in the right place. But it’s a struggle without a facility like San Antonio’s Restoration Center.

“We will have someone that we think doesn’t need to be in jail, but that’s where we leave them because they don’t have a (place) to go to,” he said.

Branson said it’s “fairly” easy for his office to identify someone who doesn’t belong in a jail cell, but it’s difficult to “cobble together” an alternative arrangement.

“Frankly, we’re not good at that,” he said.

Municipal Court Judge Scott Miller said he sees mentally ill people dealing with nonviolent misdemeanors on a daily basis. He does not have a social worker or case managers to work with, so if a mental health court were established, he said he would need more funding to support a larger staff.

Gene Meyer, the CEO of Lawrence Memorial Hospital, also said the Lawrence area is suffering from a lack of psychiatrists, despite recruiting efforts. For a facility like San Antonio’s Restoration Center to work in Lawrence, the city would have to find a way to reel more in.

Much of the group was also in agreement that forming a mental health consortium would need to be done quickly. Meyer said that although mental health care resources are “limited” in Lawrence, there is a still a duplication of efforts between various providers. The creation of a diversion program and crisis intervention center would require greater efficiency among the area’s mental health care agencies, he said.

A funding source for the project will not be determined for several more months. The Douglas County Commission is considering a sales tax referendum (if approved by the Legislature), raising property taxes or issuing bonds through a public building commission. One commissioner, Jim Flory, said in February he would be reluctant to use a public commission for the project.

Leaders of Justice Matters will host a debriefing for members of the public to learn more about the facilities in San Antonio. It will be held at Lawrence Free Methodist Church, 3001 Lawrence Ave., at 6:45 p.m. on April 14.

Douglas County leaders tour San Antonio mental health facilities

April 9, 2015. The Lawrence Journal-World.

— Various leaders from Lawrence and Douglas County toured a nationally respected mental wellness and homeless shelter campus here Thursday as stakeholders continue collecting information on a proposed project to provide better resources to some Douglas County residents who run afoul of the law.

Local government, law enforcement and health care officials, among others, spent more than nine hours learning about The Center for Health Care Services’ jail diversion program and surrounding facilities, which are based in San Antonio and serve the rest of Bexar County.

The jail diversion program helps nonviolent individuals with mental illnesses and substance abuse problems receive proper care for their conditions, rather than being jailed. Nationwide, it is regarded as a model program of its kind and has been given a Gold Achievement Award by the American Psychiatric Association, among other accolades.

In response to rising inmate populations and a greater demand to provide mental health care services to inmates, Douglas County is currently studying how to best expand its jail and construct a separate facility to assist those with mental illnesses and substance abuse problems.

The trip was organized by Justice Matters, a group of religious leaders who focus on justice issues.

Nearly 20 officials from the Lawrence area made the trip, including Lawrence vice mayor Jeremy Farmer; police chief Tarik Khatib; municipal court judge Scott Miller; Lawrence Community Shelter CEO Brian Blevins; Lawrence Memorial Hospital CEO Gene Meyer; county commissioners Nancy Thellman and Mike Gaughan; county administrator Craig Weinaug; District Attorney Charles Branson; Capt. Eric Spurling of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department; and several members of Justice Matters. More officials, including Douglas County Sheriff Ken McGovern, are expected to tour the facility in the coming weeks.

They spent most of Thursday at a facility called the Restoration Center. There, law enforcement officers from all over Bexar County can drop off individuals who are either inebriated or having a mental health crisis to rest or receive varying degrees of care.

Leon Evans, the CEO of CHCS, said 2,300 people are diverted there monthly, and anyone is welcome to check themselves in at any time of day. He said the program saves the city and county governments nearly $10 million a year in jailing and emergency room costs.

According to data provided by CHCS, Bexar County had the lowest recidivism rate in Texas in 2012, at 6.6 percent. The statewide average is 17.6 percent.

The Restoration Center is also next door to a separate 37-acre campus, called the Haven for Hope, that houses a homeless shelter and offices for more than 30 agencies — also toured by the Douglas County group.

Officials listened to nearly a dozen presentations, describing how various programs function and how the local health care, judicial and law enforcement institutions all collaborated in the early 2000s to form the jail diversion program.

Weinaug said he was happy that representatives from so many Douglas County institutions were able to make the trip. He said Douglas County would “never” be able to replicate the extensive Bexar County program, but that it could influence upcoming designs and proposals for the Douglas County project.

Officials will wrap things up with another three hours of meetings Friday.