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Law enforcers continue battles against drug, mental health crises

Aberdeen American News - 1/31/2020

Jan. 31--South Dakota's attorney general challenges the mindset that drug use is a victimless crime.

Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg spoke to the Aberdeen City Council Monday about drug problems in South Dakota. He talked about proposed legislation and answered questions about local concerns. Brown County Chief Deputy State's Attorney Ernest Thompson was also at the city meeting to answer questions.

Ravnsborg said drug use is not something that just affects the person using the substances because often there are other crimes in conjunction with drug use.

In a phone interview Thursday, Thompson said he agrees there's a wider ripple effect because one person's illegal drug use affects his or her children and extended family.

Aberdeen has seen an increase in drug calls and related instances in previous years, and Police Chief Dave McNeil said trend continues.

Police department incidents increased from 26,554 in 2018 to 29,891 in 2019, according to Aberdeen Police Department data. Drug-related calls jumped from 567 to 680; driving under the influence arrests increased from 144 to 238; mental health assessments were up from 185 to 195; and mental health calls increased from 301 to 328.

The stats also show that between 2018 and 2019 there was a decrease in intoxicated person calls, from 138 to 115; a dip in fight calls from 2,166 to 2,001; and a decrease in domestic violence calls from 342 to 302.

Ravnsborg was invited to Aberdeen in response to questions from the council about what can be done locally to address drug problems. Councilman David Bunsness reiterated that question Monday. Ravnsborg suggested talking with people in the community to see what resources are available for things like drug treatment.

"See what people in your community have for solutions," he said, also talking about the importance of keeping people close to their communities and their support systems while they are in treatment.

McNeil said the next discussion planned for the council will be about the state of mental health and a local solution that's being developed.

Scott Myren, presiding judge for the 5th Judicial Circuit, said multiple efforts are underway, including additional training for police officers and how they respond to calls concerning people dealing with mental health issues.

Another important task, he said, is finding ways to intervene earlier.

"What we're trying to do is intervene with folks who are experiencing mental health issues before they end up in the criminal justice system," Myren said.

This program is still being developed, he said, but the idea is to work with people who have mental health struggles so they don't end up in jail where the person's mental state can worsen.

Ravnsborg said he also recognizes a need in the state for additional mental health treatment options other than the Human Services Center in Yankton. Councilman Dave Lunzman, who is also chief deputy for the Brown County Sheriff's Office, said deputies spend a tremendous amount of time driving people to Yankton.

Ravnsborg said what's needed are similar programs in other parts of the state. One of his ideas on the campaign trail was a meth treatment center or a meth prison that includes a wing for treatment. He said ideal sites in South Dakota would be communities that have vacant buildings that used to be nursing homes. Not that he wants to see nursing homes close, but Ravnsborg said, those facilities would provide ideal settings.

"I believe it is a problem and we need more local or regional help," he said.

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