Ernst hosts law enforcement roundtable discussion

Source: Quad-City Times

Mental illness, data sharing, and gun violence are some of the issues discussed by law enforcement and U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst during a roundtable discussion Thursday at Scott Community College Urban Campus, Davenport.

Many of the issues discussed are those that have been seen and felt by law enforcement across the state, Ernst said.

“I do hear that from the west side of the state all the way to the east side of the state and everywhere in between. They all face those similar issues, whether it’s a rural department or an urban department.”

She added, “Just from this one hour-plus conversation, we can see that they have a lot going on in their departments.”

About 30 law enforcement officials from eastern Iowa, including Davenport, Bettendorf, Scott County, Clinton, Clinton County, Tipton, Maquoketa, Cedar Rapids, and Iowa City, attended the roundtable discussion.

Several officials discussed the need for better data-sharing systems between the various agencies. That includes being able to share mental illness information.

“That’s always been a gap,” Bettendorf Police Capt. Keith Kimball said.

Ernst said that was an issue that hasn’t been discussed a lot at these roundtable discussions.

“I think what we saw after the shooting in Florida, there were so many different agencies that knew of the threat but they weren’t communicating,” she said. “So, the thought is if we had those fusion centers, we could share information if we were all operating off the same date information systems, we might be able to intervene sooner and stop these issues before they become a problem.”

Bettendorf Police Chief Phil Redington said there is a need for more mental health treatment in the state and said he questioned the “certificate of need process” at the state level.

The chief was referring to the controversy over whether to allow Tennessee-based Strategic Behavorial Health to build a 72-bed psychiatric hospital in Bettendorf, which was opposed by Genesis Health System and UnityPoint Health Trinity.

The state’s facilities council eventually approved the Memphis company's plans for the hospital, and it plans to break ground in April.

“I think it will be a great benefit to the state of Iowa, as well as Illinois,” Redington said. “I just question the need to have to go through a process like that to get a facility in our state that is greatly needed.”

Ernst said that lack of bed space for those with mental illness is a problem not only in Iowa, but across the country.

She said that finding the right way to fund and to actively move forward, whether it’s adding more beds or treatment centers, is vital.

“That’s why I think we do need to partner at the state level to make sure that we are getting beds available,” she said.

On March 29, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed House File 2456, which expands mental health services. Among the features of the legislation are the establishment of six new access centers offering short-term assistance to Iowans in crisis situations as a lower-cost option to psychiatric hospital units often already at capacity.

The bill also removes the state's cap on sub-acute beds, expands treatment teams that monitor and assist Iowans with chronic mental illness, improves communication and processes between mental-health professionals and law enforcement, allows providers rather than judges to make mental health care determinations in the least restrictive environment, and includes other elements designed to enhance crisis-intervention and evidence-based services to de-escalate problems in a proper treatment setting.

Ernst also talked about STOP School Violence, a bill passed last month in the House, that provides funding to hire mental health counselors, security professionals and school resources officers, consultant to do a walk through and develop a safety plan for schools. Funding also can go towards an anonymous reporting system.

“There’s a lot of ways that schools can use those dollars and partner with law enforcement officials,” she said.

The program will be funded through 2028 and will provide $75 million in the first year and $100 million a year for the following years, Ernst said.

Maj. Jeff Bladel, assistant police chief for Davenport Police Department, said that Davenport has experienced an increase in gun violence.

Bladel said there were more than double the number of homicides reported last year from the previous year and that confirmed shots fired calls and weapons assaults in the first quarter of 2018 alone has gone up by 85 percent.

There have been 67 confirmed reports of shots fired as of Thursday. Twenty-three individuals have been arrested for their involvement in shots fired incidents and 51 firearms have been recovered.

One thing that may be contributing to the problem, he said, is that a number of federal prisoners have been released and “it seems that some of our organized street gangs or criminal enterprises are actually reorganizing.”

“The resurgence of crack has been an issue as well," Bladel said. 

He said the department has had a difficult time keeping up with forensics, whether it be analyzing shell casings or DNA “so our labs are backed up and it kind of bogs down cases.”

Federal resources could help with that, Bladel added.

Thursday’s stop in Davenport was part of Ernst’s 99-county tour.