FLORENCE, Ala. — Mental illness is not a crime; that’s what Florence Police Chief Ron Tyler says when officers are called to respond to incidents where a person is suffering from mental health issues.
“Mental health issues, particularly those, and that’s what I’m talking about, those that require an involuntary evaluation and commitment—those are medical issues,” Tyler said. “They’re not law enforcement issues, and mental health issues are not criminal issues. I feel like we need to have medical doctors be the primary responders.”
Tyler said he realizes that a mentally ill person having a crisis can be a public safety concern but a law enforcement response in those situations should be the exception and not the rule.
“If a person is at the emergency room here in Florence, the emergency room physician who is treating them may have decades of experience,” Tyler said. “If that physician determines that this person has a mental illness and is in crisis and they need mental health treatments, that emergency room physician has to call a police officer who’s had 60 hours of training and ask them to come and place that involuntary hold so we can hang on to them and get them to a mental health treating facility.”
Tyler said a new trend has social workers responding to scenes with officers to make that assessment, but he believes in Alabama, that too is a poor solution.
“The bottleneck is there are too few beds; there are not enough mental health treatment alternatives and options for people who need that mental health treatment,” Tyler said.
In 2020, Governor Kay Ivey announced funding for three crisis centers including WellStone behavioral health in Huntsville, but Tyler said that’s not enough, “We’re in northwest Alabama; I can’t drive somebody from Florence over to WellStone in Huntsville. We need some of that funding at the facilities here in northwest Alabama.”
Tyler said until that happens, mentally ill patients in northwest Alabama may not receive the help they need.
Tyler said one solution would be if Alabama followed Tennessee and Georgia’s example and allowed physicians to have the same authority as a community mental health officer.
He added if Alabama could address the funding issue and provide treatment options, fewer people would have encounters with law enforcement.