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Department's crisis intervention team works to avert tragedies

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Note: This is the first of a two-part report on policing and mental health issues in Farmington.

FARMINGTON — Steve Hebbe emphasizes he is not trying to overstate the problem and imply that every person with a mental health issue is a danger to the community.

In fact, he said, "Often, these people are the biggest victims in our society."

But the Farmington police chief acknowledged he has been increasingly concerned in recent years about the lack of mental health resources available to people in crisis. He worries that situation might someday result in a violent conflict between one of those individuals and his officers or other members of the community.

"Not everyone with mental illness becomes a shooter," he said. "But would I tell you I sleep easier at night with some of these folks who are not getting the treatment they need? No, I don't."

Hebbe frets that the situation in New Mexico, not just in his jurisdiction, soon will reach critical mass, leaving the state ripe for the kind of tragic, large-scale event that has become all too common across the American landscape over the past few decades. Since becoming the leader of the Farmington Police Department in 2014, Hebbe has overseen changes to the agency that he believes have better positioned his officers to limit the potential for such a situation emerging.

But Hebbe knows that's not enough and is calling on state lawmakers to inject a significant amount of money into the state's mental health system to provide potentially violent people in crisis with the help they need.

An anticipated state budget surplus left legislators in Santa Fe trying to figure out how to divide their largesse as the session lurched to a close this weekend. Hebbe points out that hundreds of bills were introduced at the Roundhouse this session, but he doubts any of them tackle the issue he is most concerned about.

"That's just unacceptable," he said.

Hebbe isn't alone in voicing his concerns about the situation. He pointed to a resolution adopted by the New Mexico Municipal League — a Santa Fe-based association of the state's municipalities designed to address the issues and concerns of its members — that calls on the Legislature to provide funding and statutory support for mental health resources. It also calls for a mandate requiring the establishment of regional crisis intervention teams that would be used to support the law enforcement and first responder mission of protecting and assisting those in crisis.

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Hebbe established his own Crisis Intervention Team in Farmington in 2015. The four-officer unit was patterned after and partners with a similar unit already in existence in the San Juan County Sheriff's Office, according to one of its members, Officer Robert Decker. He said it was created in response to the recognition that there is a local population of individuals with special needs who present challenges that a traditional law enforcement response may not be poised to address.

CIT members typically don't function as street-level officers, responding to calls. Rather, they usually operate in a secondary capacity after an individual has been flagged for displaying tendencies or behavior that warrants more attention.

"We do a lot of the follow-up. We're more case management," Decker said, explaining that CIT members often try to streamline the availability of mental health facilities and caregivers with potential recipients.

CIT members also act in a proactive fashion, he said, compiling as much information as they can on those individuals who have been flagged by other officers. That often involves visiting with such individuals and their families in a non-crisis setting to learn more about their mental condition, their home life and what kinds of situations trigger their agitation. Officers try to identify someone who the troubled individual responds to so that if a crisis does erupt, that trusted person might be brought in to defuse the situation.

Hebbe believes the team has had a positive impact.

"I think it's done a lot of good," he said. "I'm helping our officers stay out of armed conflict. But what good are we doing for the mentally ill?"

A haunting encounter

The potential for an encounter between a mentally disturbed individual and the police to go badly was brought home to Hebbe earlier this year when a 22-year-old rookie officer in Davis, California, was gunned down by a 48-year-old man in an ambush shooting. When Officer Natalie Corona responded to a routine, three-car collision in the town's downtown district on Jan. 10, a man later identified as Kevin Douglas Limbaugh, opened fire on her, hitting the young officer several times. Corona died later at an area hospital.

Her assailant was traced by police to his home, to which he had retreated after fleeing the scene of the shooting. As officers surrounded the home, Limbaugh took his own life with a gunshot to the head.

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When they entered the home, officers found a typed note the gunman had left for them, claiming police had subjected him to blasts of ultrasonic waves from a device typically employed to keep dogs from barking. Limbaugh claimed he had complained about the issue to authorities and done his best to appease them, but he said the blasts had continued for years, and he could no longer endure them.

When he learned of the shooting via media reports, Hebbe said his attention was focused on the tragic loss of the young officer. It wasn't until later, when he saw a post by a local resident about the shooting on the department's Facebook page, that he recalled that Limbaugh was a one-time Farmington resident who had complained about the same issue when he lived here.

Early in Hebbe's tenure in Farmington, officers had responded a handful of times to calls related to Limbaugh, who claimed someone was beaming ultrasonic waves into his home. Limbaugh had alarmed his neighbors, but his odd behavior here never escalated to violence or threats of violence, Hebbe said. Farmington police had no reason to detain him, and his officers lost contact with him later in 2015, when it is presumed the man moved away.

Nevertheless, his department's brush with Limbaugh haunts Hebbe. He said he realizes how easily such a shooting could have transpired in Farmington, and that has prompted his need to speak out on what he believes is an urgent problem.

"He sincerely believed what he claimed was happening to him," Hebbe said.

How much or how little?

Determining how New Mexico fares in regard to how much funding it supplies to the mental health of its residents is no straightforward task. A limited number of apples-to-apples studies are available, but most are at least a few years old, if not older, and many contain incomplete information. Complicating the issue is the difference in how such rankings are determined — overall spending, per capita spending or spending as a percentage of the stage budget.

A quick online survey of those rankings reveals that New Mexico usually ranks somewhere in the middle — between the low and high twenties among all states, likely indicating it is somewhere near the national average. A study cited in Governing magazine featuring figures from 2010 showed New Mexico ranked 28th in per capita spending.

But some observers of the issue argue that the more relevant ranking is the one that determines how much money each state spends on mental health as a percentage of its stage budget, since the size of government appropriations vary from year to year, depending on the state of the local economy.

Using that criteria, a 2017 study cited by Mental Illness Policy Org — an organization founded in 2011 designed to provide information about the care and treatment of people with serious and persistent mental illness — showed New Mexico ranked 22nd at 1.9 percent. Maine topped the list at 5.6 percent, while Arkansas was last at 0.7 percent.

In the region, New Mexico fared even better, trailing only Arizona (4.7 percent) and Kansas (2.6 percent). It outdistanced the other surrounding states with Colorado at 1.8 percent, Utah at 1.7 percent, Texas at 1.2 percent and Oklahoma at 1.0 percent.

One legislative attempt to address some of the concerns raised by Hebbe took the form of House Bill 43, a measure introduced by state Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque. Stapleton's bill, titled the Behavioral Health Interventions Act, would transfer $1.5 million from the state's general fund to the Human Services Department in fiscal year 2020. That money would be used for grants for counties that apply for behavioral health services funding to serve those jailed in county facilities who are suffering from mental health, alcoholism or substance abuse issues.

Stapleton's bill passed the House by a unanimous vote on Feb. 25 and was sent to the Senate Public Affairs Committee, where it received a do pass recommendation. But with the legislative session ending this weekend, the measure appeared to have run out of time.

It's not just the funding

That kind of disappointment has become almost routine to those who argue that much more funding needs to be supplied to mental health agencies all around the country. After all, the issue lacks a vocal constituency, and therefore traditionally falls far behind other, more prominent issues in terms of spending priorities, such as education, infrastructure and corrections.

Decker understands the political realities of that situation. That doesn't mean he likes it.

"What we have is not enough to engage the number of people here who need help," he said.

Department spokeswoman Georgette Allen emphasizes that the issue is about more than funding or the availability of services. After all, mentally disturbed individuals who have not broken the law or been found incompetent have the right to refuse treatment even when it is available, something Decker said they often do.

"It's more about giving law enforcement the ability to do something," Allen said, though she acknowledged such efforts are likely to run afoul of those who advocate on behalf of the civil rights of citizens.

Hebbe insists he's not looking for permission to lock up more people with behavioral issues.

"Let's not criminalize mental health problems," he said, acknowledging that environment can often make someone's issues even worse. "In fact, by throwing them in jail, you're only clogging the system, clogging the jails."

But he would like to see law enforcement and the courts have more leeway to intervene in cases in which mentally ill people are not receiving the treatment they need, particularly when those individuals represent a potential threat to themselves or others.

Hebbe said he continues to try to address the holes in the system by partnering whenever he can with other law enforcement agencies and mental health care providers to form a network to share information and concerns. The benefits of taking a proactive approach to the issue are obvious when weighed against the risks of doing very little, he believes.

"There's something in this for everyone," he said.

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Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610.

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