"On Your Mind" & Op-Ed articles are the opinions expressed by the writer and not necessarily those of iFIBER One LLC, or iFIBER Communications. iFIBER One LLC. and iFIBER Communications are not responsible for inaccuracies or misrepresentations.

In the summer of 2017, I joined a Mason County Sheriff’s deputy for a ride along. After I buckled up, we headed to a disturbance in a rural area of the county involving a person with a behavioral health history. The deputy, who was working overtime to meet minimum staffing requirements, was making his third trip of the day to this residence. The first two visits ended without incident or resolution, an evaluation by a behavioral health professional was hours out due to their volume of calls.

The third trip changed everything, including my perspective on policing, behavioral health crisis evaluation, and treatment. As the deputy and his partner approached the house, I sat in the relative safety of the patrol car. From there, I listened as a calm but clear voice radioed dispatch saying the subject was now armed. Backup was 30 minutes away.

Fortunately, the deputies on scene utilized de-escalation techniques and were able to resolve the situation without anyone being harmed. My ride along that night was over and the individual was on their way to the County jail to be booked on criminal charges. There they would finally get a behavioral health evaluation.

That night, the system had failed everyone; the safety net for the most vulnerable showed its weaknesses.

Four years later, Washington state has worked to improve its behavioral health care system, however House Bill 1310, which becomes state law on July 25, threatens to upend this progress when it comes to responding to calls for crisis service.

As chair of the Thurston-Mason Behavioral Health Administrative Service Organization and Olympic Health and Recovery Services board, I see the incredible work our behavioral health professionals, designated crisis responders (DCRs), fire service and law enforcement officers do each day to keep our communities safe and help individuals who are in crisis. As resources improved, responders have worked side by side to keep each other and the community safe.

Mason County takes its responsibility to serve people is crisis seriously and has invested in training for deputies, created a behavioral health navigator program which embeds public health staff with law enforcement, instituted a law enforcement assisted diversion program, and is expanding the number of crisis responders in our community. The County also purchased body and dash cameras – at the request of the Sheriff’s Office – to improve transparency and accountability.

House Bill 1310 was written to address police use of force in the wake of the horrific murder of George Floyd and others, a legitimate concern, especially in communities of color. It also drastically affects the ability of law enforcement to respond to calls involving a behavioral health crisis when the person has a history of violence but is not actively committing a crime. The risk to law enforcement if they have to use force when aiding our DCRs at a behavioral health call – in addition to injury or death – now also includes decertification of their commission and other penalties based on yet-to-be written state guidelines.

The Legislature rejected an amendment clarifying officer protections when responding in support of behavioral health professionals evaluating crisis clients. Without those protections, the state is asking paramedics and DCRs to wait for a person in crisis to commit a crime before police respond. This risks everyone’s safety, including vulnerable clients who this law was written to protect.

It is also a disservice to other meaningful investments in crisis care adopted by the Legislature. For years the issue was not having the behavioral health personnel to support law enforcement in the field. Now that we are building our behavioral health workforce, we are effectively sidelining them when they are needed most. At a time when the Legislature should be adding to the toolbox to help vulnerable clients, they have chosen to lock the toolbox.

With calls for service on the rise, fixing HB 1310 should be a top priority for legislators. Our first responders – and those they serve – should not have to wait for a serious injury or death for the Legislature to act.

By working with law enforcement and behavioral health professionals, advocates for police reform will find partners with the same goal – treating clients with dignity and keeping communities safe.

Doing a ride along in 2017 changed my perspective. Now, hopefully the Legislature will change its course by clarifying officer protections to help those in crisis.

"On Your Mind" & Op-Ed articles are the opinions expressed by the writer and not necessarily those of iFIBER One LLC, or iFIBER Communications. iFIBER One LLC. and iFIBER Communications are not responsible for inaccuracies or misrepresentations.