Opinion

County rights ship on mental health

From the Editorial Board

Tears roll down the face of a woman at a vigil outside of where pregnant mother Charleena Lyles was shot and killed by Seattle police.
Tears roll down the face of a woman at a vigil outside of where pregnant mother Charleena Lyles was shot and killed by Seattle police. AP

Charleena Lyles, the 30-year-old mother who called Seattle police about a possible burglary, had a history of mental health struggles. The Seattle Times reported that Lyles confronted police with a knife; the situation quickly escalated and ended in this pregnant mom being shot dead.

It’s hard not to wonder if a mental health responder, a professional trained to identify mental illness and defuse situations, had been with Seattle police that day, would there have been a different outcome?

In the wake of this tragedy, we’re relieved to see the Pierce County Council making sound investments toward police and mental health intervention. We admit, when it comes to the council and behavioral health, our expectations have been low. And with good reason.

Last year, results of a study commissioned by the council determined that Pierce County has a higher-than-average need for behavioral health services compared to other counties in the state, and yet the council still voted down a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax to help the South Sound’s mentally ill and addicted residents. It would have brought $10 million annually to a region woefully deficient in behavioral health options.

And yes, we’ll lament that $10 million every chance we get.

But there’s a new county executive in town, and his freshly approved 2017 supplemental budget brings good news.

In March, Bruce Dammeier proposed a course correction to the budget approved last fall. By seeking to add $4.7 million to local behavioral health programs, he sent a message loud and clear that he takes this regional crisis seriously.

The council wrestled with the budget and whittled that number down to $3 million, one-third of which is a one-time appropriation for a 120-bed psychiatric hospital to be jointly operated by MultiCare and CHI Franciscan in central Tacoma.

Call it a good faith deposit toward a $40 million hospital that will bring much relief to the South Sound.

Maybe the council finally figured out the Sherriff’s Department and jail system are bearing the cost of our region’s mental health crisis. Maybe that’s why after four months of deliberation, the council finally approved $500,000 for a Mobile Intervention Response Team, including an $80,000 rapid-response van.

Area jails are filled with people who could have benefited from a police-mental health intervention, which is why the County Council designated $100,000 for two mental health professionals to assist on calls.

Part of the county’s overall $12.6 million budget adjustment will go toward three new patrol deputies. It’s a move in the right direction, deftly orchestrated by Council Chairman Doug Richardson, and it bodes well for the Republican county executive’s agenda.

Collaboration, trustworthiness and forward steps are what we’re looking for in elected county leadership. For too long, first responders have been left alone to address the area’s lack of behavioral health treatment. They need back-up and quick.

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