Nashville police will soon have a place to drop people in a mental health crisis who haven't committed a serious crime. Construction begins this week on the city's first jail diversion program for the mentally ill.
It's an experiment that Metro Police are eager to launch. Currently, it can take all day to transport someone from booking to General Hospital and perhaps elsewhere — all for a person who might just be a danger to himself or off his medication and causing trouble.
"It's gone on for multiple shifts before," Deputy chief Damian Huggins says. "I think most anybody who has done this job long enough has sat through that. So this is going to be a great help. But not just for the police department."
The repeat offenders should benefit more. These are people who might get arrested 50 times a year. Huggins says it's clear that jail isn't helping.
This facility is supposed to be a fix — sort of a psychiatric emergency room, and it's a collaboration. Most of the funding comes from a $2.6 million state grant, with roughly $400,000 in matching money put forward by the city and nearly $500,000 from the Mental Health Cooperative, which will run the 20-bed program slated to open by late this year.
Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall attended the groundbreaking and noted that public officials don't usually plan celebrations for new jails. But the jail diversion program is different.
"This is what we should be doing. This is what the 'It City' should have been doing long ago," he said.
Sheriff's Department is building its own 64-bed jail diversion facility downtown as part of the new criminal justice center. It's designed for people in a mental health crisis who do have to be arrested. Hall says most in such a situation have a warrant out for their arrest, usually for failing to appear in court. The warrant gives an officer no discretion on taking a person into custody.
Still, Hall's program would give them an option to commit to treatment and sidestep any charges. In combination, Hall jokes that he hopes the police become almost like an Uber service for the mentally ill, simply getting them where they need to go. The idea is to get officers back on patrol within 10 minutes.
"The jail is dealing with people today that really are coming there because they're ill, and they shouldn't be," Hall says. "My goal is to build more of these."
Currently, the state is putting money into similar facilities. The Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services set aside $15 million as part of something called the Pre-Arrest Diversion Infrastructure Project.
"We know that individuals with mental illness, substance use disorders, or both who commit low level offenses can best be supported in treatment programs in the community rather than in jail," Commissioner Marie Williams said in a statement. "This project will go a long way in diverting those affected by behavioral health issues to where they are most likely to have long-term success."