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During a two-month period in 2004, more than 60 people with mental health emergencies waited for up to 60 hours to get treatment at the Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex. Some had to be kept under police guard until they could receive care.
In early 2008, police agencies continued to rack up thousands of dollars in overtime as officers waited in their squad cars or in hospital emergency rooms with patients who needed psychiatric crisis services.
According to Jim Sullivan, one of the five candidates running in the Feb. 15, 2011, primary election for Milwaukee County executive, the problem persists.
In a Jan. 31, 2011 meeting with Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editors and reporters, Sullivan responded to a question about the Mental Health Complex by saying:
"When they’re full up over there, our local police officers -- if you’ve got somebody who needs to be over at mental health because they’re mentally ill, they may pose a danger to themselves, any of these different things -- if it’s full, cops sit out there in their squad cars with a mentally ill patient in the back and they have to wait to unload and people will, in some cases, spend an entire shift out there doing that."
If Sullivan is right, police officers are regularly experiencing hours-long delays at the Mental Health Complex when transporting someone who needs crisis services.
Is he right?
We asked Sullivan, a former Democratic state senator from Wauwatosa, the basis for his statement. He did not have any direct evidence, but said he heard the Wauwatosa and West Allis police departments experienced such waits.
Thousands of people each year receive crisis care at the complex, 9455 W. Watertown Plank Road. Some are admitted to the 96-bed facility but most are treated and released.
As Sullivan indicated, crisis patients are brought to the facility, often by police, because they are deemed a danger to themselves or others.
The Journal Sentinel’s Patients in Peril investigation has uncovered numerous problems at the complex, from bungled care of patients and staff members falsifying documents to skyrocketing overtime costs.
But delays faced by police officers transporting crisis patients have not been in the news recently.
What’s more, Sullivan’s claim about delays is contradicted by an October 2010 study by a national consulting firm, which found that changes made by the county "have been very effective in reducing backups."
The finding was reiterated by the Milwaukee-based Public Policy Forum research organization in a January 2011 report, which summarized issues for candidates in the county executive race.
That report relied, in part, on a November 2010 county memo that showed a dramatic reduction in police waits beginning in 2008.
To further check Sullivan’s statement, we contacted the two police departments he cited as well as the Milwaukee Police Department and the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office.
Here is what they told us:
Wauwatosa police: Long delays ended five or more years ago and current wait times are usually less than 30 minutes, said Capt. Jeff Sutter. "It would be extremely unusual for us to have what I consider a long wait," he said.
West Allis police: Long waits ended three years ago, according to Chief Mike Jungbluth, who said his officers transport patients to the Mental Health Complex "every day."
Milwaukee police: "We aren’t experiencing the issue anymore," said spokeswoman Anne E. Schwartz.
Milwaukee County sheriff: Deputies usually wait about 20 minutes, said Capt. Darlene Jonas. If several officers are trying to get patients treated, the wait time could be one to two hours, she said.
So what’s the bottom line?
Sullivan said delays in admitting people to the Mental Health Complex for crisis care can be so long that police officers spend up to an entire shift with patients waiting for them to receive treatment. Hours-long delays were a problem some years ago. But the four largest police agencies in the county now say waits are short.
Perhaps there are isolated cases today in which officers waits for hours, but at minimum Sullivan’s claim is clearly dated.
We rate it False.
Public Policy Forum, Milwaukee County Executive Election Brief (page 21), January 2011
E-mail interview, Milwaukee police spokeswoman Anne Schwartz, Feb. 8 and 9, 2011
E-mail interview, Milwaukee County sheriff’s spokeswoman Fran McLaughlin, Feb. 9, 2011
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Days-long wait irks police, March 10, 2008
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Urgently needed mental care delayed, June 27, 2004
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Patients in Peril investigation, various dates, 2010 and 2011
Jim Sullivan, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial board meeting, Jan. 31, 2011
Interview, Jim Sullivan campaign spokeswoman Gillian Morris, Feb. 9, 2011
Interview, Wauwatosa police Capt. Jeff Sutter, Feb. 9, 2011
Interview, West Allis Police Chief Mike Jungbluth, Feb. 4, 2011
Human Services Research Institute, Transforming the Adult Mental Health Care Delivery System in Milwaukee County(page 17), October 2010
Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Division, psychiatric crisis servicesmemo (page 16), Nov. 2, 2010
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