Sheriffs, courts push Legislature to act on mental health, gun issues

Mental illness and gun violence
Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, second from right, along with other metro area sheriffs and legislators, spoke about concerns regarding mental illness and gun violence Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013 at the State Office Building in St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

A group of sheriffs and court officials is calling for changes to the state's mental health and criminal justice systems that they say will help reduce gun violence.

Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek appeared at the State Capitol Wednesday afternoon with state lawmakers, advocates for people with mental illness, law enforcement officers, judges and prosecutors.

Stanek called it the first step in a statewide conversation on mental health and extreme gun violence. He said Minnesota needs to do more to stop gun crimes, like last year's deadly shooting at Accent Signage Systems in Minneapolis.

But the sheriff also emphasized that most people with a mental illness are not violent and are no more likely to a commit violent crime than anyone else.

"Gun control alone is not going to solve the complex problem of guns and extreme violence," Stanek said. "We have an access problem. And the severely mentally ill should never have access to guns. Having said that, we have an epidemic of untreated mental illness in the United States and right here in Minnesota."

Stanek introduced five proposals that have the backing of the Minnesota Sheriff's Association. He said the state should ensure that courts send information about felony convictions and mental health commitments to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension within 24 hours. The BCA already adds that information electronically to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

State Rep. Dan Schoen
State Rep. Dan Schoen, DFL-Cottage Grove, who is a member of the Cottage Grove police department, speaks at a news conference about mental illness and gun violence Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013 at the State Office Building in St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

That federal database keeps records on people who may be disqualified from owning or buying firearms. Carver County Sheriff Jim Olson, who helped introduce the proposals Wednesday, said the federal database is incomplete. He said some civil commitment records are missing.

"We need to ensure that all of these records, both moving forward as well as reaching back, are included into this system," Olson said. "Never, and I mean never, should a person who has been deemed mentally ill and dangerous by the courts be allowed to purchase a handgun."

Stanek also said law enforcement officers need to have immediate access to mental health court records. Although the court records are already public, Stanek said many officers do not have that information when responding to 911 calls.

Hennepin County Judge Jay Quam outlined another proposal that has the backing of the sheriff's association: providing more prompt mental health evaluations of jail inmates. Quam said right now many people with mental illness languish in jail for months without treatment.

"Jail is a very bad place to bring people who are living with untreated mental illness," Quam said. "It challenges the strength and stability of even the most healthy people and it's especially destructive, sometimes irreversibly so."

More immediate psychiatric evaluations would allow judges to make quick decisions about whether to send inmates elsewhere for treatment, Quam said.

Mental illness and gun violence
State legislators joined sheriffs from around the metro area at a news conference to talk about mental illness and gun violence Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013 at the State Office Building in St. Paul. Speaking is Sue Abderholden, with the National Alliance on Mental Illness Minnesota.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

"It's a cumbersome, time-consuming and expensive system. It typically takes two to three to four months until the person finally comes through and gets the treatment that they need," Quam said. "It wouldn't be that difficult to consolidate the proceedings. So rather than having someone sit for three or four months, they can be done with their proceedings within one to two maybe three weeks in most cases."

Stanek and others also called for a review of the state's civil commitment law and an assessment of available resources to treat mental illness in Minnesota.

Sue Abderholden, the executive director of the Minnesota office of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, appeared with Stanek at the news conference, but said she does not agree with all of his proposals. She said there is no need to change the civil commitment law right now.

"I think you could find a group of people who would say the interpretation is too loose and a group of people who would say the interpretation is too tight," Abderholden said. "I also think that if you don't have community-based services, if you don't have anywhere for people to go, frankly it doesn't matter."

Stanek said he took the disagreement as a positive sign that people are willing to start talking openly and honestly about mental health and gun violence. He said he plans to share the proposals with Gov. Mark Dayton Wednesday.

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