Conservation officers may be given powers to deal with mental health emergencies under the bill

Michigan lawmakers are working on what they call a “common sense” solution to a problem that has tied the hands of conservation officials for years.

Senate Bill 1172 would give conservation officers the same power as state police to place in protective custody an individual in need of a mental health evaluation.

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 proposed by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

“Unfortunately, sometimes people go to state parks or public lands far too often to harm themselves,” Chang said. “Conservation officials are currently required to involve law enforcement in order to bring an individual into protective custody or for an investigation. However, these officers may not have observed the same behavior as the conservation officers and as such may not feel comfortable making that decision.”

Currently, for purposes of the Mental Health Act, a “peace officer” is defined as an officer with the Michigan State Police or a local law enforcement agency.

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

Chief Dave Shaw and Sergeant Damon Owens of the DNR gave their own testimonies during the committee hearing on Nov. 11.

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

He said officials mostly encounter people who need mental health services in areas where there is a larger population, like southeast Michigan.

Owens, who monitors and patrols Belle Isle in Detroit, knows firsthand that mental health crises are unfortunately a common occurrence in state parks. In the 10 days between the beginning of the month and the committee meeting, Owens said he saw three cases of people requiring mental health services.

He said he’s seen drug overdoses and suicides, with people even jumping from the Belle Isle Bridge into the Detroit River, which can be deadly.

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

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

Owens said through verbal coercion, he and other officers are sometimes able to persuade people to voluntarily accept help by placing them in protective custody. When people don’t want to volunteer, he explains, they can become restless and further compromise the safety of others.

If that law were signed into law, Owens said, there would be no question as to whether the person needed help.

That proposed authority would also extend to campus policing and travel policing, said Taylor Ridderbusch, Legislative Liaison for the DNR.

“They don’t have that authority and they just want to be able to help people and that makes it seem like an easy fix,” Ridderbusch said.

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

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