SAFE Communities and police work together for sober shelter

This is the second part in a series on public intoxication.

FAIRMONT — Though public intoxication has proved a major problem for police forces in Monongalia county, especially in Morgantown, a new collaborative effort between officials may provide a long-term help.

Chief Deputy Al Kisner, of the Monongalia County Sheriff’s department said publicly intoxicated individuals used to be housed in the county jail when it was in operation.

“Previous to the regional jail system and before the state law that prohibited housing people just for public intoxication, there were people only charged with public intoxication in the jail.”

Kisner said since public intoxication alone is no longer a jailable offense, that is not an option, but there is no longer a county jail, so any other offenses combined with public intoxication would go to the regional jail. In 2001, the county closed its jail to go to the regional jail system.

“We have now a transport processing center,” he said. “Now, there are individual cells. We have one big common cell, an isolation cell; however, those are only used for a short period of time to have one of two things done.

“Either the person who gets arrested gets arraigned after they’ve been arrested, and they are released on bond, or they get arraigned after they are arrested, and they can’t post bond. They are transported to the regional jail.”

Morgantown Police Chief Edward Preston said the regional jail does not typically accept public intoxication cases.

“Under the state code, the police are required to transport an intoxicated person to their residence, release the arrestee to a sober person that accepts responsibility, transport them to the emergency room or arrange for transportation, or transport the arrestee to a judicial official,” he said. “The regional jail can and does refuse to take custody of intoxicated individuals until they are medically clear, so you still have to go back to the hospital.”

Preston said he thinks a better way to handle publicly intoxicated individuals would be to open a temporary shelter to house individuals until they are sober. He, along with Dr. Dan Shook, coordinator for the SAFE Communities Initiative at West Virginia University, are bringing municipality and county officials together to see it happen.

“Dan Shook and I have been working for three years to try to get this,” he said. “We have been trying to get the county to participate, we’ve been trying to get a location, trying to get medical providers to participate because we used to have a public intoxication facility that was run through the homeless shelter. It was underwritten and the medical proviso was done through Valley Healthcare.

“Changes in insurance came along, and they stopped providing the service. There is no, even though we have a state mandate that we have to do that, there is no state-run or state-funded facility.”

Shook said his organization had used data to measure various problems in the community and submit them to the National Safety Council, citing alcohol harm, especially “binge-drinking” as a serious problem.

“Each county has a different problem, and the alcohol problem is the major problem here in Monongalia county, primarily in Morgantown,” he said. “A couple years ago, when I first got to know Chief Preston, he was the one who brought this sobering center to my attention. I had never heard of that before.”

Shook said after looking at the data provided by other sobering centers, mostly on the West Coast and Southwest and riding along with both the Morgantown and WVU police departments, he realized a shelter would help address a major issue—that of high-risk drinkers with no where to go.

“I’ve been out with the Morgantown police and the University police at night, and I can say almost every detention and alcohol arrest that was made the times I’ve been out with (Chief Preston) and I’ve usually been out during the holidays, Halloween and St. Patrick’s Day and things like that, has been an underage drinker.

“We are attaching as an institution, kids that tend to have a problem, and what I see is they are really crying out for help. The sobering center would be the beginning of trying to get some of the kids to get some help they need.”

Shook explained the shelter would not only be a safe place for the intoxicated to sober out, but also offer medical and counseling services for a more long-term solution.

“(Preston) really had this concept of a sobering center, but making it more specific for the younger, college, acute intoxicant verses the chronic intoxicant we have in our town, but we also have those everywhere,” he said, “and that it would be not only a place where you just dump kids off the street to keep them out of everyone’s hair, but actually provide medical care, health care, monitoring during the time they are recovering or sobering up.

“Then, instead of just kicking them out the door the next day, have some services available, social services, people skilled in those areas to direct these individuals, usually college-age kids, to these services for safe treatment and help.”

Kisner said the sheriff’s department would be completely onboard with the shelter.

“I’m sure we would be because when we had the inebriate center that operated out of the Bartlett House, we took advantage of that in situations where you may have someone that doesn’t have a friend around or doesn’t have a sober friend around because maybe they are all under the influence of alcohol or drugs. That was maybe the situation where we took advantage of as well as the other law enforcement agencies,” he said.

Star City Police Chief Thomas Varndell said the department would be supportive of the opportunity.

“Would we be interested? He said. “Yes, because that gives us another option other than jail. Public intox, whether it be alcohol or drugs—you aren’t going to arrest your way out of the problem. You have to have some sort of a treatment.

“So, having another viable option, another tool in the toolbox, basically, would work much better, yes.”

Westover Police Chief Richard Panico said his department would be supportive, but there would need to be a solid, factual plan involved.

“I think the sobriety house would be easy to do,” he said. “You have the resources to have a location. You have the resources to staff it with people, and even if you didn’t have medical personal—the Bartlett House don’t have medical personal? I don’t know if there’s a code to require you to have medical personal (on site). Look at any halfway house or sober living house. I don’t know if a halfway house has an EMT in it.

“You might have to cut some corners when you get started and work this in, but if you are serious about taking care of the problem, you take care of the problem first and you deal with the issues that come after that after you deal with the problem.”

Granville Chief Craig Cockrean said their department didn’t handle many public intoxication calls, but “we would be on board with it. Anything to help people, we are involved in. We want to be involved in.”

Preston said the progress has been slow getting agencies to respond to efforts to join the collaboration.

“I have made these presentations before to a number of city councils and a number of city managers as to a number of these issues dealing with that, like there’s no public intox center in the policies required by the state and variations within the state code and court cases, etc. All that stuff has been out there,” he said.

“Again, it’s ran into lots and lots of roadblocks. The Sheriff’s office is on board with it. WVU is on board with it. We are on board with it. It’s trying to get commissions, trying to get councils—right now, our biggest hang up has been medical people because no medical provider wants to put their medical license in jeopardy for not providing or providing or underproviding, etc.”

Preston said it had to be a collaborative effort to be effective.

“We’ve worked on it as a collaboration, “he said. “That’s been the whole purpose behind it. It has to be. The county can’t take it on solely. The city can’t take it on solely. It’s a collaboration. It has to be everybody together.

“And it’s not just a law enforcement thing. That’s the side of it that most people don’t understand. It’s not about law enforcement because it’s a medical condition. We have to have medical input. We have to have medical personnel on board with it or else it doesn’t matter. We have to have people monitoring and making sure they are safe. Their alcohol is not going up too high. It’s not going down too low. They don’t need medical intervention. That’s not a police issue—that’s a medical issue.”

Shook said he had been frustrated with the progress of the plan, but that Preston would not let him give up.

“So, what’s going to happen is I’ve pulled together a group of individuals,” he said. “We are going to get together in July. It’s going to be healthcare individuals it appears we get to probably help man or have some personnel within the sobering center throughout the evening that can monitor the patients…they’ll have a protocol set up to see if they can be admitted, and also, they will have discharge criteria to see if they are safe enough to leave the next morning. Then there will be protocol in place once they get discharged to see counselors, social workers…

“I have a number of law enforcement agencies I’ve gotten to respond to me…we’ll just see who shows up. We’re keeping the group rather small so we can make some progress.”

Shook said Preston has offered a location for the first sobering center in the Public Safety building and the Monongalia County Commission has offered a grant to buy safety and medical equipment needed for proper care of the individuals.

“We really hope that with all our criteria and with all the police departments adhering to this, we will be able to reduce the number of EMS calls, reduce the chances probably of someone being physically or sexually assaulted, try to get them the help that they need…there’s so many good things. I can’t even begin to tell you.”

Preston said he hoped the community would be on board with the plans to help reduce the number of public intoxicated individuals and getting them somewhere safe with help.

“It’s been an issue, and a lot of times people are looking for the police to fix an issue that’s not a police issue,” he said. “It’s a community issue. It’s a quality of life issue.

“Even if others won’t respond, the police will still respond because we have a community caretaking role. We don’t just get to say, it’s not working, so we don’t do anything. We have to respond. Somebody calls 911, we don’t get to say I’m not going to go to that call. We show up. Period.”

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