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Sun, March 29

Bill would make it easier to lock up mentally ill on probable cause

PHOENIX -- State lawmakers want to make it easier for police to lock up someone who may be dangerously mentally ill with a measure one legislator fears could also sweep up those who are just a bit odd.

Existing law allows police to detain someone who is believed to be a danger and have them held in at a hospital for up to 24 hours. But it requires the police officer to observe the behavior.

HB 2158, crafted by Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, would relax that to permit detention based on probable cause. More to the point, it would eliminate the requirement for personal observation, allowing police to rely on what others said they have seen.

And it would extend that hospital hold to up to 48 hours.

That concerned Rep. Eddie Farnsworth. The Gilbert Republican said he questions the ability of someone without training to identify mental illness.

"There are a lot of people that I think act a little bit nutty to others that are perfectly sane,' he said, suggesting to colleagues they might actually know some of them.

Kavanagh, a former policeman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, told colleagues how he used to come across people at the bus terminal who clearly could not take care of themselves. He said officers took those people to a psychiatric hospital where doctors could hold them for up to 72 hours to see if they were mentally ill and dangerous.

That evaluation determined whether to seek a court order for involuntary commitment.

Kavanagh said the problem with Arizona law is an officer can act only on what he or she personally observes.

"From my own experiences, this will pose a real problem in letting people who should be taken in for observation to evade that,' he said.

"Usually, it's witnesses that call police, that report the aberrant behavior,' Kavanagh explained. "And usually, when the police officer arrives, the aberrant behavior will often stop,' sometimes just on sighting someone in a uniform.

Kavanagh said the requirement for personal observation could endanger public safety.

"The overall purpose of the bill is to pick these people up who are potentially violent and paranoid before they pick up a gun and start killing a lot of people.'

Farnsworth ended up supporting the legislation, which now goes to the full House. But the veteran lawmaker who also heads the House Judiciary Committee said he's not entirely comfortable on letting police rely on witness accounts to decide who may be dangerous.

"We need to be really cautious this doesn't open up some kind of Pandora's Box that now anybody who acts differently than us rises to the level of probable cause, and now we can hold them.'

The measure also drew a note of caution from first-term Rep. Jamescita Peshlakai, D-Cameron, who said she was trained as a military police officer in the Army. She represents a district with several Native American tribes.

"I really have concerns with the liberty this gives a police officer to feel like they have that ability to make that determination of holding somebody for 48 hours,' she said. But Peshlakai also agreed to vote for the measure "for the safety of others.'

Kavanagh said the ability to hold someone for 24 hours -- or 48 if his bill becomes law -- does not mean that's how long they will be locked up.

He said a doctor might be able to determine within hours if someone is really dangerous. And Kavanagh said that, if nothing else, the hospitalization provides a chance to get individuals the necessary medications to restore their behavioral control.

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