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Officials push for a diversion center focused on mental health in Bell County

Posted at 10:33 PM, Mar 16, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-16 23:33:42-04

There's a new diversion center in the works in Bell County. Its purpose is to give a treatment option to law enforcement for those who have a mental health illness, instead of sending them to jail or the emergency room.

The Bell County jail has expanded on its mental health services in the past, but they want to take things a step further by creating a place where those folks who have a mental illness, many of which are low-level offenders, can have a place to heal.

Judge David Blackburn, Bell County Judge said, "It is not unusual for 30 to 40 percent of your jail population to be diagnosed with some form of mental health issue or illness."

Blackburn said usually, a jail cell is not the best place for someone in a manic state, often a hospital bed isn't either, but those are the places folks with mental health illness end up when they are arrested. The center would lower the inmate intake in the county jail.

"If they don't end up in the criminal justice system, that could well end up in the emergency department of an area hospital, which is also not the most appropriate place for the care of these individuals," said Blackburn. "The diversion Center allows us to expand and enhance those opportunities to treat those individuals in a non-incarcerated setting."

Blackburn explained the facility is still in its early planning phases, but law enforcement agencies are hoping it becomes a reality.

Assistant Chief Alex Gearheart with Killeen Police Department said, "This is something that's been needed for some time. Again, not everybody, not everyone belongs in jail. And jail is not it's not a health facility. It's not a mental health facility. Police around the country have been talking about mental health for quite some time, it kind of sounding the alarm, it seems that the police become the kind of just the default response to when there's someone in a public space. That's in some sort of crisis."

Gearheart said giving the proper care to our neighbors could have a long-lasting impact on our local criminal justice system.

"Nobody wants somebody that that's truly having some mental health issues, locked up in jail for having mental health issues. We've got to do right by other people. This is not a police problem, not a crime problem. It's a community problem. I think there's room for a lot of improvement in this if this diversion center can become a reality. I think that's a good thing for all of us," said Gearheart.

Blackburn said thanks to some federal/state funding they have some funding secured to build the facility.

"We've earmarked a little more than $4 million to construct the facility. We're working on what the operating cost will be projected for that facility. We have determined the location for the Diversion Center, which will be on the campus of the Justice Center, right next to the jail. It'll be a separate facility outside and apart from the jail," said Blackburn.

Blackburn says a team of about 40 or 50 stakeholders in the community including area law enforcement agencies, mental health authority agencies, mental health care providers is all working together to work on the operating costs. Judge Blackburn hopes to have a preliminary report within the coming weeks.