Traverse City News and Events

Changes Eyed For Sheriff’s Office, Jail

By Beth Milligan | Nov. 15, 2020

Changes could be coming soon to the Grand Traverse County Sheriff’s Office and County Jail, including establishing a full-time interdiction team at the Sheriff’s Office and improving technology and staffing at the jail in response to a recent audit that flagged issues with mental health services and disjointed care for inmates.

Sheriff Tom Bensley appeared before county commissioners at a special meeting Thursday to discuss both topics, including a proposal to add a sergeant and a deputy to the Sheriff’s Office in order to staff a full-time interdiction team. The Sheriff’s Office has operated an interdiction team, or a specially trained unit designed to combat certain types of criminal activity, on a part-time basis since 2016.

Since 2016 through August 2020, the interdiction team has arrested 267 individuals, conducted 1,036 contacts, and seized over 857 grams of drugs including marijuana, cocaine, crack, meth, and heroin (the team has since stopped targeting marijuana). Michigan State Police Lt. Kip Belcher previously told commissioners the interdiction team works collaboratively with the Traverse Narcotics Team to stop the flow of drugs into Grand Traverse County and take down large-scale dealers and distributors.

The Sheriff’s Office has requested several years in a row to add more staff to the department, but has repeatedly been turned down in budget review. According to Captain Chris Clark, the Sheriff’s Office has gone from 68 sworn employees in 2003 to 67 in 2020, despite calls for services almost doubling in the same time period. “Grand Traverse County has not invested in additional FTEs for many years,” Clark wrote in a memo to commissioners about full-time positions, adding that more staff were needed to “provide safe, proactive law enforcement services to the citizens and visitors of Grand Traverse County.”

The Sheriff’s Office approached the board in August about establishing the full-time interdiction team, but was advised to wait until later in the year when budget review was further along and COVID-19 revenue impacts were better understood. At the August meeting, Commissioner Gordie LaPointe suggested shuffling some unfilled staff positions at the jail over to the Sheriff’s Office to keep the same overall number of employees in the department. Bensley acknowledged this week that while it has been difficult filling corrections positions, he did not want to eliminate two staff positions from that department long-term in the event the Sheriff’s Office could eventually fill them.

Bensley did suggest, however, that instead of seeking more money from commissioners to add personnel to the Sheriff’s Office – as has been the repeated request in the past – he was willing to work within his existing budget to try and find savings to add the two interdiction team employees. Bensley said he wanted commission approval to allow the department “to work within our budget...to try and figure out how we fund those two positions over the course of the year.” Bensley said that approach could allow him to fill out the full-time interdiction team by mid-2021.

Commissioners expressed support for the plan, with Commissioner Sonny Wheelock saying he had not previously seen a staffing strategy from Bensley that centered on staying within the current budget. “I'm all in favor of asking administration to move forward with working with the sheriff to provide these positions within his staffing plan and within his current budget,” he said. LaPointe also said he “certainly would support it,” with Commissioner Bryce Hundley adding that he trusted Bensley to distribute his budget as needed. “I wouldn't be against you reallocating resources as you saw fit,” he told the sheriff.

Commissioners will also likely look at funding strategies in the near future to make changes at the Grand Traverse County Jail. In a report released in August, NCCHC Resources – an independent firm hired to review conditions at the jail – determined that overall medical care in the facility is good, but flagged numerous concerns with mental health care, calling it “fragmented and discontinuous” and noting that an “unusually high” amount of potentially addictive drugs are prescribed to inmates.

The firm expressed concerns about the disorganized nature of paperwork in the jail – where records are kept by hand, not electronically – and disjointed communications between the jail’s contracted medical provider (Wellpath) and contracted mental health provider (Northern Lakes Community Mental Health Authority, or NLCMHA). The firm recommended having one designated authority coordinating care in the jail to reduce mistakes and ensure continuity of services.

Representatives from Wellpath and NLCMHA took issues with some parts of the report – noting the audit is only a snapshot of the jail and did not involve a long-term review of services or staff – but said they agreed with the recommendation of moving to electronic records as a top priority. “Medical charts are a mess, we have paper charts everywhere,” said Wellpath’s Elaine Kaiser.

Kaiser estimated switching to an electronic records system could cost the county $30,000 for a one-time setup fee, in addition to an annual $25,000 licensing fee. She said Wellpath would be “willing to work with (the county) extensively” to spread those costs out over several years in a contract to help get the system up and running. Electronic records would be owned by the county, not contractors, and could prove invaluable in tracking documentation – key to reducing the county’s legal exposure. “It saves the county from lawsuits,” Kaiser said.

Both Wellpath and NLCMHA representatives – as well as Bensley and jail staff – said they were looking at improvements they could make based on the report, such as better screening inmates for mental health risks during intake, reducing prescriptions of addictive drugs, making mental health care available to more inmates, and improving communications between medical and mental health care staff. Bensley said it was clear more staffing was needed at the jail to improve inmate care – though he cautioned commissioners “that costs money” – and said his department was “going to take these suggestions very seriously.” The Sheriff’s Office is set to return to commissioners in the future with possible recommended changes at the jail, which could include making the switch to electronic records, boosting staff, and/or going to a single coordinated provider for both medical and mental health care in the jail.

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