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    Letters to the Editors

    The mentally ill need help before crisis


    © St. Petersburg Times
    published November 17, 2002

    Re: Officers must do better by mentally ill, Nov. 10.

    There are few who would disagree with Mary Jo Melone's assertion that law enforcement officers must continue to do whatever we can to ensure that encounters with people who are psychotic end peacefully.

    But we cannot overlook that police and deputies can only enforce the laws that are currently on the books -- and one of those laws is putting people with severe mental illnesses in grave danger, forcing them to deteriorate to a point of crisis before the state can help them.

    Florida's mental health treatment law, the Baker Act, prohibits early intervention when someone is deteriorating into a mental health crisis; consequently, families must wait until a person becomes dangerous to get intervention, often then doing so by calling law enforcement. And Florida is one of only nine states that doesn't allow court-ordered outpatient treatment for those who are too sick to realize that they need help.

    That means that law enforcement officers are more likely to be the ones managing people with mental illnesses in severe crisis than mental health professionals. And no matter how in-depth or widespread the training, we are not doctors or psychiatrists.

    Last year, law enforcement handled more Baker Act cases than burglaries, initiating approximately 100 each day. Couple that with the fact that there are more than 10,000 inmates with severe mental illnesses in Florida jails -- more than four times as many as in our remaining psychiatric hospitals -- and it isn't difficult to see that we are in an urgent situation.

    The Florida Sheriffs Association is spearheading reform of the Baker Act to authorize judges to order community-based treatment and allow humane intervention for Baker Act recidivists before they become dangerous. Whether or not a revision in the law could have helped David Montgomery is uncertain -- but it is a fact that he and thousands of others like him deserve a chance to get treatment before a crisis strikes and they end up in jail or in the morgue.
    -- Donald F. Eslinger, Seminole County Sheriff, and past president, Florida Sheriffs Association

    Law needs repair

    It's frustrating to read so many recent articles about the consequences of people living with untreated mental illnesses (Shooting raises training questions, Nov. 7; Man released with medication, Nov. 9; Officers must do better by mentaly ill, Nov. 10; Sister's worrying ends; brother found, Nov. 12.

    Nearly half of the people with untreated severe mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, lack insight into their disease. Many, like my daughter, refuse necessary treatment because they don't think they are sick. For years I have watched her cycle in and out of treatment, powerless to help her because of Florida law, which requires her to be "dangerous" before the court can order her to treatment. Then she can only get help on an inpatient basis.

    Under many scenarios like mine, family members are the safety nets for loved ones with severe mental illnesses. When the law prevents us from helping them, it results in tragedies -- homelessness, incarceration, victimization, homicide, suicide.

    The situation of my daughter and thousands of others point to the truth. All the police training in the world won't solve the problem of people who need help denied them by their own state laws.
    -- Rhonda Atkins, Sarasota

    Do better by police

    Re: Officers must do better by mentally ill.

    Once again, Mary Jo Melone takes the side of the criminal without regard to what a "cop" goes through each and every day. In her Nov. 10 column, she states that "cops" need to be more sensitive to the needs of the mentally ill. Our law enforcement officers are expected to be mediators, lawyers, teachers, parents, doctors and now psychiatrists, too?

    My husband has spent the past seven years on the streets protecting and serving the citizens as a patrol officer. The last three years have been with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. He also has a bachelor's degree in criminology from FSU. He has attended several training courses each year and must constantly keep up with the ever-changing laws and codes of society.

    Melone, along with the majority of society, has a career in which she does not have to make split-second decisions. Melone can read her work, spell-check it, edit it and pass it off to a superior before it is printed. And should incorrect information make it to press, Melone's mistakes will not disable or kill her, as can the mistakes of a law enforcement officer.

    So rather than requesting that law enforcement officials "do better" by the indigents of society, maybe Melone should do better by those working to protect her. She should give law enforcement officers the respect they deserve. After all, their life is on the line so that the quality of her life is better.
    -- Lani Hudgins, Seminole

    Disillusioned citizens

    Re: The collapse of American citizenship, Nov. 10.

    A very interesting and cerebral treatise about our disappearing heritage. But, so many words to say our citizenship has been privatized, our democracy purchased and our elections irrelevant? We already know that many, especially the young, do not vote. The question is why.

    Can it be that the two major parties offer nothing of substance for the well-being of a compassionate, civilized society? Can it be the futility of seeing major issues tweaked and obfuscated to make us think we are getting something?

    Certainly the majority of the people need and want such things as universal, affordable health care; a pollution-free environment; protection from corporate predators; living wages; etc.

    Instead we get "sold" only those things on which the company store, through its congressional clerks, can profit.

    How do we recapture our democracy? Can we? Maybe we have. We have our flag-draped SUVs, don't we?
    -- S. Davis, Oldsmar

    New party leaders wanted

    Enough, already! The Democratic Party dead? The Democrats did not prevail -- this time -- but millions of people voted Democratic, almost half of Congress is made up of Democrats. We have a wealth of Democratic governors. What we don't have is leadership.
    -- Only Dick Gephardt, for whatever the reason, has seen fit to do the right thing and step down. The rest of them, all of them, Tom Daschle, Terry McAuliffe, and in Florida, Bill Poe, should do likewise.
    Who should replace them? I don't know, but certainly it shouldn't be too hard to find others with more savvy and spine than that bunch of failures. We need them to get out of the way.
    Sydney K. Potter, Tampa

    Bitterness abounds

    The Perspective section of the Nov. 10 Times went along way toward answering the question: How many ways can you possibly express one's bitterness about losing?

    Nicholas Kristoff and Martin Dyckman both prattled on with the very popular "boy, if you win the election you'll have to produce!" argument, one that seems to say that it's better to lose than it is to win.

    Philip Gailey's column meandered all over the political landscape with random thinking more akin to Dr. Hunter Thompson than anything I'm accustomed to reading on an editorial page. I suspect it's a form of traumatic stress disorder.

    Robyn Blumner went so far out on the limb as to make a silly comparison of President Bush to some historic French king -- I'll bet "W" is bound to lose sleep over that one!

    Best of all was Bill Maxwell's total manifestation of denial: He ignored the whole subject with his very insightful column on the various types of rap music. Hopefully, he'll be recovering soon.

    I suspect the Times editorial staff will get on with life, just like Bill Maxwell. Perhaps an upcoming Perspective section can offer readers a preview of next season's spring fashions.

    Just as the Democratic Party is struggling to remain a relevant entity in American public life, so too perhaps is the Times.

    In the meantime, this 50-something lifelong Democrat is going to change his party affiliation. I think I'll keep reading the Times, though.
    -- Jim Parker, Tampa

    Progressive path is best

    The election of the Nancy Pelosi, a truly progressive Democrat, to lead the Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives was the best thing to happen to the Democratic Party in a long time.

    A number of Democratic candidates lost in the recent election because they were campaigning as conservative Republicans.

    As Harry Truman noted, when Democrats run as Republicans, the real Republicans will always win, and when Democrats run as progressive Democratic candidates, they will win. The Democratic Party, which favors the middle class and the poor, offers a real alternative to the Republican Party, which is so beholden to the wealthy and to huge corporations.

    When Democratic candidates get out that message -- that they will work for the good of the majority of people -- they will win.
    -- John McCrossan, Tampa

    Stamp of approval

    I'm so grateful to the U.S. Postal Service for spending millions for TV ads. If they didn't, I wouldn't know where to buy my stamps. Duh!
    -- Betty Stern, Palm Harbor

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