Charleston Co. sheriff hopes to model new mental health program on Florida agency’s specialized unit

Published: Jul. 30, 2021 at 6:42 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 30, 2021 at 6:51 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Charleston County Sheriff Kristin Graziano said she plans to change how her deputies respond to calls involving mental health issues to help prevent another tragedy under her watch.

She is looking to model a new diversion program after one of the country’s first law enforcement behavioral health units.

“Our goal is to divert them altogether from coming into our facility if there’s not a need for it,” Graziano said.

Graziano is hoping to replicate what the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office has been using to respond to calls involving mental health issues.

“We get called to these mental health crisis weekly. It’s almost daily…and our officers are trained, but they not to the extent other mental health professionals are,” Graziano said. “This is something I ran on about reallocating our funds and our resources to address the needs of the community, and that’s what I’m going to work towards.”

Sheriff Ric Bradshaw leads the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office in Florida, and he started his agency’s behavioral health unit about seven years ago.

“It was obvious to me we had become the biggest mental health provider in the county, and that was in the jail. That’s pretty sad,” Bradshaw said. “Not to mention the fact we had had a number of officer involved shootings involving mental health people, and the fact you also had a lot of mass shootings and active shooters going on around the country that involved people with mental health issues.”

The unit now has seven teams, each made up of a highly skilled deputy who has a masters or Ph.D. in psychology or social services and a mental health professional from the community. Bradshaw said this strategy can help agencies prevent incidents like the death of Jamal Sutherland inside the Al Cannon Detention Center. Sutherland died after he was tased multiple times by detention center deputies when he refused to leave his cell for a bond hearing. He was arrested at a mental health facility in North Charleston where he was seeking treatment for bipolar schizophrenia, and body camera footage showed he was struggling with a mental crisis when he was booked inside the jail.

“It can keep people out of jail because we can intervene ahead of time,” Bradshaw said. “In instances where they may have done something minor but because they are off their medication or not getting the treatment, they end up in the county jail.”

The program’s hurdles were money and time. Bradshaw said this kind of program cannot be started overnight, and it can’t work without the help of mental health professionals.

“It’s a valuable tool to have, and it’s a shame to ask the average deputy on the road to handle something so sophisticated with minor amount of training when you can get the right people to do it and be successful,” Bradshaw said.

The Charleston County Sheriff’s Office will host a multi-disciplinary summit on Aug. 4 to address the community’s problem and how to minimize law enforcement’s interactions with people in crisis. Graziano said this will be an opportunity to take a closer look at Palm Beach’s behavioral health unit and figure out how to implement its strategies in Charleston County.

“We want to lead the state in this. We want to be what everybody in the state looks towards when it comes to a model for addressing mental health in the community,” Graziano said.

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