SOUTH BEND - A man runs across the University of Notre Dame campus, screaming at the top of his lungs. He tells police that people were chasing him, though none could be seen.
Police arrest him for trespassing.
Another man is in a local store causing damage. He says that he’s under siege and trying to block the door to keep people from storming in — people that no one else sees. Police arrest him for criminal mischief.
Both men now await decisions by the courts to see if they are mentally competent.
St. Joseph Chief Superior Court Judge Michael Scopelitis calls these cases to mind as he speaks to a room with about 25 police officers along with other people who work for courts and agencies that serve the mentally ill.
The judge is blunt.
“A mentally ill person doesn’t belong in prison,” Scopelitis says to the officers, who come from agencies across the county. “They’re in there with sociopaths, and there’s the potential for additional harm. ... We have no chance that someone (with a mental illness) will come out of prison better, and you’re going to have to deal with them again.”
He is speaking at the close of a three-day workshop this past week hosted by the local Crisis Intervention Team, aimed at helping law enforcers to better deal with cases of mental illness.
In the cases he described, Scopelitis encourages officers to take the person to a psychiatric hospital where they can be evaluated and kept for treatment. That would be Memorial Epworth Center in St. Joseph County.
Police can request a 24-hour detention for a person to an in-patient facility like Memorial Epworth if an officer believes a person is both mentally ill and is at risk of harming him/herself or others because of that condition.
That gives the facility time to evaluate the person and even extend it to a 72-hour detention and see if it needs to keep the person longer.
“That’s a whole different way of doing business, and some of you, frankly, may not feel comfortable doing that,” Scopelitis says.
“It may be very different from what the officer has done for the past one or two decades of their career,” the judge explains.
The norm has been to arrest and book the law-breaker into jail.
“The concern of police is that they (the mental health professionals) may find nothing wrong with him and let him go,” South Bend police Capt. Robert Hammer adds.
That’s why Hammer advises officers to call Memorial Epworth while they’re still in the field and ask: Does this situation meet the criteria for admission or a 24-hour detention?
One officer asks: What if a 20-year-old son beats up his mother in a way that could be considered a felony, though he says the angels told him to do it?
Scopelitis says he’d start with the psychiatric hospital and see if it will do an evaluation. But also, he emphasizes, officers should go back to the station and fill out a police report with a narrative of what happened.