South Carolina

After drowning deaths, SC police say more treatment beds, not training, is the answer

S.C. police chiefs say the key to addressing the way mental health patients are transported in the state is more treatment beds, not more law enforcement training.

A state Senate panel held a hearing Wednesday on a bill that would require law enforcement officers undergo specialized crisis-intervention training if they are transporting mental health patients.

The bill comes after the drowning deaths of two mental health patients during Hurricane Florence. The two women were not violent, relatives said. However, they were locked in the back of a police van that submerged in flood waters.

York Police Chief Andy Robinson said the S.C. Police Chiefs Association is concerned about the cost and logistics of creating therapeutic transport units for mental health patients, particularly for smaller police agencies. Creating the units also would take police officers away from their other duties for eight hours or more to transport mental health patients to facilities in Conway, Charleston or Aiken.

“We need more treatment facilities in closer proximity,” Robinson said, citing a shortage of in-patient psychiatric beds in rural parts of the state. That shortage requires mental health patients be taken to larger cities where the state’s more than 1,800 psychiatric beds are concentrated.

Robinson also suggested lawmakers create a transport division within state government, or, perhaps, privatize the transport of mental health patients.

Committee members said any revision to state law will have to include state money for training to avoid passing down an unfunded mandate to counties. The cost of the proposal is not yet known.

“I understand law enforcement doesn’t want the responsibility, but someone has to take the responsibility,” said state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, the bill’s sponsor. “What was done to these women was inexcusable, and it’s up to us to fix it.”

Emergency room physicians, too, raised concerns that the training requirement may result in a shortage of qualified law enforcement personnel to transport patients. That could lead to mental health patients spending more time in emergency rooms as they await transport, delaying patient care. They suggested that emergency medical technicians also be trained.

Nicolette Green, 43, of Myrtle Beach, and Wendy Newton, 45, of Shallotte, N.C., drowned Sept. 18 in the back of an Horry County sheriff’s van. Authorities say two deputies drove the van around a barricade onto a flooded road, despite being given an approved route to take that would have avoided flooded roads.

The deputies, who later were fired and now face criminal charges, couldn’t free the women through the van’s rear door because they did not have its key or bolt-cutters, lawmakers were told.

Both women were under an order for transfer from Horry County to other facilities in the state.

Kimpson’s bill also would require physicians to inform family and friends that they have the option to transport patients themselves.

Kimpson noted the two women had no history of violence or harm to themselves or others. Yet, the two were “caged” in the back of a “paddy wagon.”

Green’s 19-year-old daughter drove her to a scheduled counseling appointment, where her new counselor decided Green should be committed at a state mental health facility.

“Where there’s no evidence of being a danger, and they have family members willing to transport ... we view the family members as the appropriate person or persons to transport loved ones,” Kimpson said.

A Senate Medical Affairs subcommittee took no action on Kimpson’s proposal Wednesday, saying more work needs to be done on the bill.

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Tom Barton covers South Carolina politics for The State. He has spent more than a decade covering local governments and politicians in Iowa and South Carolina, and has won awards from the S.C. Press Association and Iowa Newspaper Association for public service and feature writing.