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Miami-Dade Commissioner Wants Database of Mentally Ill Residents So Police Don't Hurt Them

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In recent years, Miami-Dade County has been held up as a model for how the criminal justice system should handle people with mental illness or developmental disabilities. Much of that can be attributed to the work of Circuit Judge Steve Leifman, who created a jail diversion program for those with mental illness and developed a framework for "crisis intervention training" to help cops handle calls involving people with mental health issues.

Now, Commissioner Rebeca Sosa wants to take the county's efforts one step further. This week, she proposed a voluntary registry that would help Miami-Dade police identify residents with disabilities and mental illness.

"The reason why we're doing this is that law enforcement gets called many times to houses of residents who have children with autism and other things like that," Sosa says. "This would be so when police are called in case of an emergency, they know how to deal with them."

Here's how it would work: People concerned about a family member or loved one could contact police on a voluntary basis to give them a synopsis of the person's condition and state. On the chance that officers are called to the person's address in the future, a dispatcher would be able to relay any relevant information, including if the person has any problems communicating.

National surveys show that police encounters can be deadly for those who cannot comply with officers' orders. Nearly one-quarter of those who were fatally shot by on-duty police last year were in mental distress at the time.

Sosa says the registry would ideally also include information about people with physical ailments or limitations, such as seniors who require oxygen. After Hurricane Irma hit last summer, it would have been nice for police to have had a reference list of people who might have needed assistance, Sosa says.

"We learned from what we saw during this hurricane," the commissioner says. "We can place their lives at risk if we don't identify where they are."

Sosa stresses that the registry would be completely voluntary and says her resolution directs the mayor's office to create guidelines so the database would comply with medical privacy laws.

If approved, Miami-Dade's registry would be far from the first of its kind. Police in cities in California, Arizona, and New Jersey have launched similar databases after receiving requests from parents of children with mental disorders. The International Association of Chiefs of Police has also advocated for the use of registries to help officers identify people with Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia.

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