FARMINGTON, Utah (ABC4) – According to a report by NiceRx, nearly 30 percent of Utahans suffer from mental health problems, which is the highest in the nation. The Addiction Center reports that drug-related deaths in the state are higher than the national average. 

For decades, police officers responding to mental health and drug-related crises had two options for the person: jail or the hospital. Now, one program is working with police departments to change that and get to the root cause of these crises.   

According to the Utah Drug Monitoring Initiative, illicit drug-related arrests peaked in 2017. In that year alone, there were nearly 20,000 arrests. Deaths during that year were more than 500. While arrests have slowly declined since 2017, deaths have remained fairly unchanged.  

In December 2019, a one-year pilot program launched in Davis County to try to change that. Now, it appears as though that program will remain in place long term.  

“We know that the war on drugs was something that we were not going to be able to win,” Bountiful Police Chief Ed Biehler told ABC4. Chief Biehler has been in law enforcement for more than 25 years. He said he’s excited to finally be making a lasting difference in the fight against drugs.   

“They feel much better about law enforcement because they feel we are compassionate, they can see that we’re not just trying to take people to jail, and to get people in the hospitals and those kinds of things,” Chief Biehler stated. “They actually feel like we’re caring about their well-being.”  

The chief was talking about the relationship those going through a crisis have with Bountiful police officers. It is a relationship he says is changing for the better and it’s thanks to the Charge Diversion Program through the Davis Behavioral Health Receiving Center.  

“In lieu of taking someone to jail, they can finally get an access point to get evaluated and options to get treated,” the center’s director, Callier Murray, said.  

The center works with law enforcement to educate officers on what mental health and drug-related crises look like. Murray told ABC4 that the more confident officers are in recognizing the signs of crises, the more confident they will be in referring those in crisis to the center.  

In 2021, the Bountiful Police Department took 61 people to the receiving center rather than jail or the hospital. Chief Biehler told ABC4 that doing so is beneficial to the community for a few reasons.

He added: “Taking them to jail, that’s a cost to taxpayers to have people housed in the jail; it can be negative towards the offender (because) they’re going to have to go to court, (and have to pay) the court fees; it can affect their family, their job.” The chief said hospitals are often overcrowded and don’t need the influx of additional patients.  

The program began in December 2019. At that time, Bountiful and Layton police departments were the only departments to join the program. Over the last year and a half, that’s changed. Callie Murray said, “Currently, we’re open to all law enforcement departments in Davis County.”  

The Davis County Sheriff’s Office recently started using the center as well. In a statement to ABC4, the department said: “We have decided to support this effort because it has the potential to positively impact our Jail operations and improve the lives of some of our most at-risk citizens. It can help keep people out of jail who really do not need to be in jail and will direct them to the help they do need.  It will reduce the overall number of people we need to book, and perhaps most significant; it will decrease the number of folks detoxing in our jail.” 

According to Murray, the center received 121 people through the Charge Diversion Program. She said the success rate for program completion was about 50 percent.  

The program is voluntary. Responding officers who recognize that a suspect is in a state of crisis, the officer may recommend the diversion program. Murray explained that the program serves as “A direct line for crisis intervention where people can come and be assessed very quickly. We work toward stabilization and then we work to get them placed into different levels of care for treatment.”  

After treatment, the center directs the client to the resources he or she needs to be successful in overcoming his or her ailment. This includes a peer support program. “When people come to the receiving center, they are able to engage with those peers and really get a sense of hope that recovery is possible, and healing is possible,” stated Murray.  

“Our ultimate goal is to get people treatment,” said Chief Biehler. “If we can help one person get the treatment that they need, that can affect generations of their family to be able to not be in those ruts and to be more successful in life.”  

Again, the program is voluntary. Police departments drop the charges against those who choose to participate in the program and complete it. Participating law enforcement agencies may put a limit on how many times they take an individual to the receiving center rather than to jail to be charged. Chief Biehler told ABC4 that the Bountiful Police Department has decided not to implement a limit. He said they made this decision because they never know when a person is ready to make long-term changes. He added that a person may decide he or she is ready for treatment on the first visit to the center, or on the tenth visit.