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Protective custody among priorities council will consider Broadening mental health professionals' authority is one of several legislative topics city leaders will weigh

Omaha World-Herald - 11/20/2017

Omaha City Councilman Pete Festersen wants the city to weigh in on mental health.

Festersen wants the City of Omaha to support a bill, if introduced in the Nebraska Legislature, that would allow mental health professionals, not just police, to place mentally ill people in emergency protective custody.

"I want to send the message that we all need to own this issue and work together to make a difference," he said.

The idea is part of a legislative priority package that the City Council will vote on Tuesday. It includes bills the city would support and bills the city would seek to be introduced. Other priorities include changes to how the state sends tax revenue to Omaha and a suggestion from Omaha police that would streamline the process of returning children accused of crimes to their parents.

Festersen also has requested that the city support an effort, if introduced, to allow protective custody patients to be transported across state lines for access to more beds.

The Douglas County Board will also consider its legislative priorities Tuesday. Board Chairwoman Mary Ann Borgeson said she's added mental health proposals similar to Festersen's.

"It could speed up the process of folks being able to get the help they need and frees up law enforcement officers to get back out on the streets," she said of the one dealing with mental health professionals.

The proposals come after a mentally ill man died in the custody of Omaha police. Zachary Bearheels, 29, in June was shocked with a stun gun and punched by officers.

Festersen said his proposal wasn't prompted by a specific incident.

Law enforcement officers can force people in crisis into emergency custody or short-term mental health treatment. Such custody is used for people who are considered a danger to themselves or others.

Giving similar authority to mental health professionals could help lessen the load for officers, who are often the first point of contact for people in mental distress. The department averages about 120 emergency custody situations a month, a spokeswoman said.

It could also get those who are best prepared to deal with a person in crisis involved earlier, Festersen said.

He said he has met with Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer and that the chief indicated his support for both measures when he spoke to the council's Public Safety Committee.

"It just seems to me that allowing greater involvement from mental health professionals is a positive," Festersen said.

Council members also will vote on whether they should support the following, if introduced in the Legislature:

» A bill, requested by Omaha police, that would allow officers to return a child younger than 11 who has been accused of committing a crime to his or her parents. Children currently have to be turned over to the State Department of Health and Human Services before they can be released to a parent.

» A carryover bill by State Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha, with support from Festersen, that would, among other things, cap payday lending interest rates at 36 percent.

Also, council members will vote on whether they should instruct the city's lobbyist, Jack Cheloha, to ask legislators to introduce:

» A bill, requested by Mayor Jean Stothert and Festersen, that would change the state gas tax formula so that Omaha would get more revenue.

» A bill, requested by Councilwoman Aimee Melton, that would return to Omaha the state sales tax that Omahans pay on their increased sewer fees for the federally mandated sewer project.

» A bill, requested by City Prosecutor Matt Kuhse, that would change the process for prosecutors appealing a case or ruling.

» A bill, requested by Omaha police, that would grant immunity to Omaha Police Department civilians who handle opioids as evidence and need to use naloxone, an antidote for opioid overdose, during an emergency.

emily.nohr@owh.com, 402-444-1309

 
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