County takes aim at drug abuse, mental illness

Grants would fund services aimed at jail inmates, be used to hire behavioral health officer and crisis interventionist
Ozaukee Press staff

A priority of  Ozaukee County officials — to address the mental health and substance abuse issues of county residents and those in custody at the Ozaukee County Jail — took a step forward when a committee of county supervisors earlier this month recommended applying for more than $2.67 million in federal funds.

The county Health and Human Services Committee approved a joint request from Ozaukee County Sheriff Christy Knowles and county Human Services Director Liza Drake to apply for three U.S. Department of Justice grants to be distributed over the next five years to hire more staff and improve services.

The money would be used:

• To make full-time a current part-time mental health professional position shared by the two departments and works with inmates being released from jail to reduce recidivism.

The position was created in 2020.

Nearly two-thirds of Ozaukee County jail inmates have been diagnosed with a mental disorder, officials say, and often have no plan for what to do or how to live once they are released.

“We would really like to expand this program,” Drake said. “We need a plan for when they (inmates) leave. It’s much more preventative in nature.”

The grant would be for $222,000 a year for 4 1/2 years. The grants would have no impact on the county levy because no county match is required.

Drake told committee members that the chances of being awarded the grant are good.

“We get additional points because we already have a working program,” she said, but noted that “there is no guarantee the funds would continue to be available after 4 1/2 years” to fund the position.

“If it reduces the jail population, it pays for itself,” Supr. Don Clark said.

• Create two new positions — a behavioral health officer and a crisis interventionist — that would team up to respond to behavioral health crises.

“Crisis incidents across Ozaukee County are on the rise, for both law enforcement and crisis intervention staff,” Drake and Knowles said in a memo to the committee.

The two full-time positions would work jointly on calls received by the Sheriff’s Office or the county’s crisis line instead of having deputies or other staff members respond.

“Contacts that involve behavioral health issues take longer to de-escalate and create a follow-up plan,” they said.

“These calls are taxing on everyone involved,” Knowles said in an interview. “The time commitment for mental health crisis calls are very rarely less than four hours for each call and take a minimum of two deputies to respond to.

“When we operate with a minimum of three or four deputies per shift, we are leaving the county extremely understaffed,” she said. “In addition, we call in deputies on overtime to fill those vacancies caused by the deputies who are busy with the mental health crisis calls.”

The grant request seeks $183,333 per year for three years. It would require a county contribution of $45,833 for the first two years and $122,222 for the final year.

Drake said the county contribution could be in the form of in-kind support, such as office staff time.

“This is our No. 1 priority,” Drake said, noting that a request for the two positions has been included in the departments’ budget requests the past two years but have gone unfunded.

“If it proves helpful, you’ll see me again to talk about expanding it,” she said.

• Fund a program that offers treatment to inmates with substance abuse issues while they are incarcerated and after they are released into the community, especially for inmates who live outside the county.

“Getting connected to treatment is a daunting task for many,” Knowles and Drake wrote.

“It would support them in jail and after jail until they are finally set up with another provider,” Drake told committee members.

About 65% of inmates in the Ozaukee County Jail are from outside the county, but they commit crimes in the county because they work here, visit people here or come here expressly to commit a crime.

Those with substance abuse issues can receive treatment while in jail, but the county loses touch with them after they leave the jail.

But even in the jail, care is minimal for inmates with mental or substance abuse issues, Knowles said

“The inmates in the Ozaukee County Jail need more than one mental health counselor that is currently on staff for 160 inmates,” she said.

Federal funding for the program would total $281,250 per year for four years. No county match would be required.

“These initiatives are very important,” Knowles said. “In order to combat the rising mental health crisis calls our deputies respond to, the mental health concerns with inmates in the jail and the substance use issues that the county currently faces, we need to be proactive in the ways we approach these issues vs. reactive as we sometimes handle them.”

The Sheriff’s Office and municipal police departments have seen a significant  uptick in drug and mental health calls in recent years.

Sheriff’s Office data shows that there were 16 total overdose calls in 2020, 15 in 2021, 22 last year and seven so far this year, which, if the pace continues, would total close to 30 by the end of 2023.

Of those, nine resulted in fatalities. Victims have ranged in age from 15 to 71. The drug naloxone, which counterattacks the effects of opioids and is also known by the trade name Narcan, was administered in 45 cases.

The numbers include both intentional suicide attempts and unintentional overdoses.

The drugs used included heroin, fentanyl, cocaine and prescription drugs alone or in combination with each other.

“We have noticed a trend that almost all of the heroin that we have seized since approximately 2020 has contained some amount of fentanyl in it,” Undersheriff Marshall Hermann said.

Grafton Police Sgt. Eric Sutherland concurred, saying his department has even seen “counterfeit Oxycontin” in which the active drug is fentanyl brought into the country by Mexican drug cartels across the southern border.

“It’s blue with all the drug company markings. It looks like the real thing,” he said.

Mental health calls received by the Sheriff’s Office also have risen.

Last year, deputies responded to 131 mental health calls, up from 116 in 2021. So far this year, the department has responded to 30 such calls, compared to 52 in all of 2013.

“If we continue at this rate we will be just shy of 200 mental health crisis calls for the year,” Knowles said.

For its size, the Village of Saukville has been hard hit by the drug trade, due in large part to its location, Police Chief Robert Meyer said.

“Our location within the county and state is significant,” he said. “We are set on the intersection of Interstate 43 and Highway 33. These roads are major corridors moving traffic and drugs to larger cities to our north and west.”

 In 2022, there were 83 drug offenses committed in the village, nearly half of the 185 incidents recorded, Meyer said. The next highest offense category were thefts, of which there were 48.

Among those drug-related incidents, nine involved overdoses, one of which was fatal. Naloxone was administered in five of them.

“Drugs have a big impact on our workload,” Meyer said, adding that marijuana remains the most common drug that officers encounter.

Grafton police, meanwhile, have responded to 22 overdose calls from 2020 through 2022, including four that resulted in deaths, Sutherland said.

In Port Washington, there have been 21 overdose calls over the last three years, resulting in five deaths, data show.

Knowles said she is hopeful the grants will be a step toward reducing recidivism and helping inmates be successful in the community.

 “Getting the proper response from law enforcement with the partnership of human services and a social worker is crucial in linking people with the proper services and resources and having a proper response to these situations,” she said.

“We continue to work with what we have and our staff does a great job. However, being able to provide additional resources for the mental health and substance use disorders of our inmates is important for their continued success upon their release.”











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