Local police: Mental health issues must be priority

After President Barack Obama unveiled his gun violence package last week, several local police chiefs emphasized one point: the need to address mental health.

“It’s such a complicated issue, and we always focus on guns because that’s the easiest thing to focus on,” Huntley Police Chief John Perkins said. “I’m not saying it’s good or bad; I’m just saying the real issue is mental health issues.”

Obama’s executive orders acknowledge the problem, including releasing a letter to health care providers clarifying that no federal law prohibits them from reporting threats of violence to the police.

His legislative ideas also include ensuring young people get the mental health treatment they need and that insurance plans cover mental health benefits.

The point is especially poignant for McHenry County. The largest social service agency – Family Service and Community Mental Health Center – closed over the summer because of financial issues, caused in part by the state being behind more than $850,000 on its payments to the agency.

Perkins said two groups of people shouldn’t have guns: criminals and the mentally ill.

It’s how to go about keeping the guns away from them that’s the problem, with myriad other issues that follow.

“I can’t say what the president did was great or what the president did was bad,” Perkins said. “We have to keep the guns out of the hands of the people who aren’t supposed to have them. I don’t know the answer to that issue; it’s too complex.”

Few argue with stricter background checks, but from a practical standpoint, Perkins asked who will do them and who will pay for them.

In Illinois, there’s a question on FOID card paperwork that asks the applicant whether he has been a mental institution patient in the past five years.

“That’s our check right now for mental health,” Perkins said.

Perkins said that when he was a young police officer, it was much easier for people to be committed because they were a danger to themselves or the community. Relaxed laws for mental health professionals to allow them to share more information would help, he said.

McHenry County Sheriff Keith Nygren agreed.

“We’ve created [the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act], and people are afraid to talk to each other,” he said. “There are so many restrictions on what we can share.”

Perhaps the most discussed and most politicized aspects of Obama’s proposals have been his push to reinstate an expired federal assault weapons ban, as well as restore the 10-round limit on ammunition magazines.

Algonquin Police Chief Russell Laine is a proponent of an assault weapon ban; he lobbied in Washington, D.C., when the last one expired in 2004.

He participated in an International Association of Chiefs of Police summit that issued a 2007 report that included a recommendation for banning military-style assault weapons, armor-piercing handgun ammunition, .50-caliber sniper rifles “and other weapons that enable criminals to outgun law enforcement.”

What purpose the guns serve needs to be considered, Laine said.

“Are they designed for hunting? I certainly have no problem with that,” he said. “Weapons and guns that are designed specifically for the purpose of killing people should be banned.”

It’s part of the challenge of crime in a free society, Nygren said.

“As Americans, we cherish our freedoms, as we should,” he said. “We’re talking about restricting our freedoms, in the eyes of many people who know they would never do anything wrong and they never will.”

Whatever action is taken, it needs to be based on solid research and data, Nygren said.

“We need to backtrack ... and look at the common denominators that seem to be underlying violence,” he said. “And if we can attack those things – it could be mental health issues – we’re going to be using our resources more effectively.”

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