In the last two weeks, law enforcement officers have responded to three major incidents involving a suspect with mental illness. On Thursday, community leaders met to address the challenges they face in treating and providing care to the mentally ill.
Congresswoman Martha McSally held the roundtable discussion focused on specific challenges that she can take to the federal level. She heard from several community leaders about what they deal with on a daily basis.
Four days ago, a man locked himself inside his midtown apartment firing gunshots and making threats. The Tucson Police Department Mental Health Support Team responded along with the hostage negotiation unit. But when the man walked outside and fired shots at officers, an officer returned fire and killed him.
"We really prefer to not have law enforcement be the first encounter with somebody who's dealing with a mental illness," said McSally.
She recently introduced a bill called the Mental Health and Safe Communities Act, that includes a list of specific mental health challenges. For example, access to care facilities and alternatives to jail.
"What's happening is some people who are mentally ill are finding themselves behind bars and they get a bed there when they really need a bed in a facility that's actually going to help them treat their illness," said McSally.
Her bill also includes the expansion of Crisis Intervention Teams, like the ones at the Pima County Sheriff's Department and Tucson Police.
"We feel like we're delivering a very good level of service for those that are in mental health crisis," said Capt. Paul Sayre with Tucson Police. "What we're looking for now and we're hoping her bill will provide will be that step down level of care so those folks that still need some sort of structured care provided for them to help keep them in recovery but not necessarily in a locked down facility like the crisis center."
McSally said one of the most talked about items at Thursday's roundtable was addressing the stigma surrounding mental health, so more people are willing to seek treatment.
"So that people treat mental illness just like they do cancer or heart disease or diabetes and that we have the integrated care that individuals need and they're willing to seek the care and they don't feel like that's something embarrassing for them," she said.
If more people seek treatment, McSally says they may not go into a crisis requiring a response from law enforcement like recent cases we've seen this month.