Sheriff: Second transportation officer needed for mentally ill patients

Published 12:20 am Tuesday, November 6, 2018

NATCHEZ — The Adams County Sheriff’s Office is dealing with an “epidemic” of mentally ill patients, causing the need for a second transportation officer to reduce liability issues and provide safety for patients, a judge told the Adams County Board of Supervisors during Monday’s meeting.

District 17 Chancery Court Judge George Ward spoke at the request of the Adams County Sheriff’s Office and said the number of people dealing with mental illness is growing at a rapid rate.

Adams County District 2 Supervisor David Carter asked Sheriff Travis Patten, who was in attendance, if the reason behind Adams County’s increase in mental patients was drug related.

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“Good question, but I don’t have an answer,” Patten said. “There are a lot of drugs that mimic mental illness, so sometimes it’s hard to tell, but we have to just accept where we are. Adams County has an overload of patients.”

Ward said the problem has been around for a while.

“It has been problematic for years,” Ward said. “In the past few years, it has been like an epidemic — skyrocketing numbers. Now we’re having several a week, running almost 200 a year in commitments; which is unfortunate, but it is real.”

Ward said safely housing mentally ill people until they can be transported to mental health facilities is a problem for the county, because the state’s mental health facilities do not always have beds available for the patients who sometimes end up being held in the jail.

“The state hospital is slow about accepting patients,” Ward said. “By the time people come to us it’s bad. It’s a quick proceeding, two or three days. But when you commit them, what do you do with them? That’s not acceptable to put a patient with mental illness in the jail. Short of building a facility in the Natchez area, we have to put them in the jail.”

Ward said jailing a patient places liability on the county.

“If we have an order in place to commit a patient and he is not transported and something happens with that patient, we have major liability issues,” Ward said. “That falls on us, the county, if he harms himself or someone else.”

Patten said when an opening at a mental facility materializes the inmate sometimes has to be transported within 24 hours or the available space is lost. Patten said his office has one transportation officer who is full time but also carries other responsibilities.

“Every day, we make sometimes two to three trips to Meridian and Jackson, wherever they have a bed. Every day it’s a constant battle,” Patten said. “We use our manpower efficiently but it’s not enough. Every last one of them has multiple jobs they do.”

Patten said the average shift is manned with four deputies and that pulling even one could leave the county short-handed if something occurs. Patten said an additional full-time transportation officer would keep him from stretching his force so thin.

Patten said the transfer officer position is a full-time position that would pay $14 per hour.

District 1 Supervisor Mike Lazarus asked if public defenders could do the hearings for the mentally ill rather than charging the county per case, thereby freeing money to provide another transportation officer.

“I could go talk to the circuit judges and see if they would make them do that,” Ward said, adding he believed finding funding for an additional transportation officer would be worth avoiding an incident.

Lazarus said the county has kicked around the idea of creating an independent public defenders office for some time. He said not only would such an office save the county money but also would better serve the public.

“I think it would be more cost effective,” Lazarus said. “It’s something we need to look into as a county. We get complaints about the inmates or prisoners never even seeing their public defender until they go to court.”

Supervisor David Carter, District 2, said he believed having a pool of part-time, retired sheriff’s deputies to provide the transportation would address the problem at a lower cost.

“We don’t need a full-time position,” Carter said. “Just pay them by the miles they travel and save money and it still meets the needs. It increases manpower and saves money and reduces the employee cost to the county.”

Carter said the burden of dealing with mental health always falls to the local level.

“The problem is the state has failed,” Carter said. “Mental health is getting much worse in our area, and we can’t see the reason, but the burden falls on us.”

“This is a cost we can foresee and try to keep a catastrophe from happening,” Ward said.

Also at Monday’s meeting, all supervisors were present and unanimously approved:

4A resolution allowing the county to file a lawsuit for eminent domain for property along Morgantown Road, which is being widened for safety improvements.

4Asking the road department to survey an issue with overgrown kudzu on Pineview Road and to address the issue.

4Allowing a movie company to return to the county to film new scenes for the film “Ma” that was filmed earlier this year in Adams County. County attorney Scott Slover said a previous contract signed by the county allowed for additional scenes.

4Moving $479 from their cash fund to the Law Library Fund for a new computer and printer.

4Approved payment of $27,491.10 to Mandal’s Inc. for repairs to the Health Department roof, with $9,621.89 of the invoice paid through a grant.

4Accepted a Victim of Crimes Act grant of $278,291 for providing services through June 30, 2019.

4Sending four county representatives to Pearl for Mississippi Emergency Management Agency’s free grant training in January.4 Approved an application for a $19,592 grant from MEMA for operating costs and equipment for emergency medical services.

4Amended a previous grant for the Adams County Drug Court to reflect a $104,000 increase.

4Supervisors met in executive session to discuss litigation. No action was taken.