Conservation officers may be granted authority to address mental health emergencies under bill

Michigan lawmakers are working on what they call a “common sense” solution to an issue that has left conservation officials’ hands tied for years.

Senate Bill 1172 would give conservation officers the same authority as state police to take a person in need of a mental health evaluation into protective custody.

The bill was introduced by Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, who said during testimony at a Senate Health Policy and Human Services committee meeting this month that the change was requested by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

“People sometimes go into state parks or public lands, unfortunately, too often to hurt themselves,” Chang said. “Protection officers currently have to call a law enforcement agency to take a subject into protective custody or for evaluation.” However, these officers may not have witnessed the same behavior as the protection officers and therefore may not feel comfortable making that decision.”

Currently, a “peace officer” under the mental health code is defined as an officer of the Michigan State Police or local law enforcement agency.

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The bill would amend this definition to include officers who work for a law enforcement agency licensed under the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards, such as the Department of Natural Resources.

Chief Dave Shaw and Sergeant Damon Owens with the DNR testified during the Nov. 11 commission hearing.

DNR officers patrol all 83 counties across Michigan, Shaw said, and are often the only law enforcement available during odd hours and in certain regions of the state.

He said officers often encounter people in need of mental health services in areas with larger populations, such as southeast Michigan.

Owens, who oversees and patrols Bell Island in Detroit, knows firsthand that mental health crises in state parks are unfortunately common. In the 10 days between the start of the month and the commission meeting, Owens said he saw three cases of individuals needing mental health services.

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He said he has seen drug overdoses and suicides, with people even jumping off the Belle Isle Bridge into the Detroit River, which can be fatal.

“Belle Isle is a beautiful park in the city of Detroit,” Owens said. “Unfortunately, because of the beauty and peace of it, we face a lot of mental health issues.”

Protective custody by a peace officer is temporary and, while not the same as an arrest, may be made with or without the individual’s consent if necessary for the safety and welfare of the individual or the public.

Owens said that through verbal coercion, he and other officers can sometimes convince people to voluntarily get help by entering protective custody. When people don’t want to volunteer, he explained, they can become anxious, further putting the safety of others at risk.

If this bill were signed into law, Owens said there would be no question of whether an individual should get help.

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This proposed authority would also extend to campus police and traveling police, said Taylor Ridderbusch, legislative liaison for the DNR.

“They don’t have this authority and they just want an opportunity to help people, so that seems like a simple solution,” Ridderbusch said.

The committee sent the bill to the Senate with a recommendation that it pass. The bill will have to pass both the Senate and the House and be signed by Governor Gretchen Whitmer to become law.

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