How officers decide to Baker Act vs. arrest crime suspects

Training offered this week in Lee County
Posted at 6:42 PM, Jul 26, 2017
and last updated 2017-07-27 07:08:47-04

Lee County deputies have arrested the teenager allegedly caught on camera making a mess in Matlacha, vandalizing several popular businesses.

19-year-old Joshua Cohoon is being charged with criminal mischief and property damage. Detectives say he was taken into protective custody last week under the Baker Act but he wasn't charged until now.

Four In Your Corner has been digging deeper into the act, asking experts how officers decide when to apply it.

"It's going to depend on all the situations presented before [officers] them," Former Fort Myers Police Captain Jim Mulligan said.

Mulligan is a training coordinator for Southwest Florida's Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness to help officers recognize the signs of mental illness and respond properly.

"If [suspects] they say they want to hurt themselves or kill themselves, that's an example right there," he said. "We teach [officers] them to understand the signs of dementia, Alzheimer's, and understand what people are going through when they're hearing voices, when they're actually seeing things they believe what they're seeing is actually in front of them when the rest of us around them don't."

This week, Southwest Florida's chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is putting on a Crisis Intervention Team Training in Lee County. The 40 hour program is designed to give officers and emergency service personnel who participate more tools to do their job safely and effectively.

Participants go through an intensive week of classes to learn about mental illness, the science of addiction, personality disorders, PTSD, as well as Autism and Alzheimer’s disease, among other topics. Towards the end of the week, there are interactive exercises for participants. They are asked to role play scenarios to learn the best way to de-escalate situations.

The goal is to keep people with mental illness out of jail, and get them into treatment, where they are more likely to get on the road to recovery.

"They're in pain internally, it's pain we can't see," Mulligan said. "The resolve to mental problems is not putting them in jail, it's finding them the help to get them treatment and live a normal and productive life."

It's important to note, a person who is Baker Acted at first can still be arrested and charged. Then, it's possible for the person to go through mental health court to be assessed and offered long term treatment. NAMI, the crisis prevention center in the area, offers free services to friends and families who may be dealing with someone with mental illness. 

"The ultimate goal is jail diversion," Vacharee Howard, Executive Director of NAMI Lee said.

According to NAMI, at least 2 million people with mental illness are admitted to US jails every year. Nearly 15% of men and 30% of women booked into US jails have a serious mental illness and at least 83% of jail inmates with a mental illness did not have access to needed treatment.

NAMI has been coordinating and facilitating CIT training in Lee County since 2005. To date, more than 1,100 police officers and emergency services personnel have been trained.

CIT Trained 2005 - May 2017

Lee County Sheriff's Office: 290

Fort Myers Police Department: 249

LCSO Bureau of Corrections: 292

Cape Coral Police Department: 156

20th Judicial Circuit Court: 29

FGCU Police Department: 28

Agency Not Specified: 26

Port Authority: 12

Mental Health Service Provider: 6

Sanibel Police Department: 3

FSW/Edison State: 3

Collier County Sheriff's Office: 3

Triage Center: 3

Florida Department of Corrections: 3

NAMI claims since the inception of Lee County CIT Corrections-Specific Training in 2012, the incidents requiring use of force within the Lee County Jail dropped 67%.

Experts say a person who is Baker Acted at first can still be arrested and charged. It is possible for the person to go through mental health court to be assessed and offered long term treatment.

NAMI offers free support and connection groups for friends and families. For more information to learn about mental illness, click here.