MONTPELIER – Starting in July, police cruisers throughout Vermont will have to carry “soft restraints” for transporting individuals after responding to a mental health crisis.

These devices, with fabric resembling that of a seat belt, will offer an alternative to “mechanical restraints” such as metal handcuffs. A new law specifies that officers will use soft restraints “as a first option” for these passengers when restraint is deemed necessary for safety.

The requirements also extend the same criteria that have been in effect for sheriff transports since 2005 to all law enforcement. Those include avoiding physical and psychological trauma, respecting privacy, and using means that are the least restrictive necessary for the safety of the patient. That 2005 law was passed as a result of advocacy by Vermont Psychiatric Survivors after hearing from the parent of a young boy who was taken to the Brattleboro Retreat by sheriffs in wrist, ankle and waist shackles.

The overall new bill focused on the transportation of individuals who have been taken into the temporary custody of law enforcement based upon a finding that the person presents an “immediate risk of serious injury to self or others.”

The legislation made several other changes to the procedures by which a person can be brought unwillingly to healthcare facilities for an emergency examination to be hospitalized against a person’s will. Sen. Ginny Lyons introduced the bill following several months of meetings organized last year by Vermont Care Partners, the umbrella organization for the state’s community mental health centers.

The workgroup, which included representation by Vermont Psychiatric Survivors, examined the statutes that govern involuntary interventions during apparent mental health crises that take place outside of medical settings.

In the absence of a physician who would certify the need to hold the individual in advance of potential inpatient admission, a Superior Court judge’s warrant is the alternative authority.

State law previously allowed a police officer or a mental health professional to take a community member into custody and transport them to a hospital only if such a warrant was granted. The revisions to the law will now allow the forced transport to take place as soon as the warrant is applied for.

Lawmakers added language drafted by Jack McCullough of Vermont Legal Aid’s Mental Health Law Project. He described a growing problem of judges permitting involuntary interventions based on inaccurate secondhand information. Warrant applications must now rely on the applicant’s own observations unless accompanied by a signed statement of facts from another source.

Through the bill, Vermont Care Partners said it hoped to shift more of the responsibility for the warrant and court-ordered transport onto police officers specifically, citing fears of physical harm among its agencies’ clinicians and resulting workforce recruitment challenges. According to Brandi Littlefield, the Howard Center’s assistant director of First Call for Chittenden County, the desired change would resolve delays in “access to hospital care as a result of confusion of who will provide the emergency transport.”

In the final legislation, only law enforcement can take individuals into custody for mental health reasons without a physician’s certificate. A mental health professional can still provide transportation to them “if clinically appropriate,” but not by court order.

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