The city is poised to take legal action against the state for closing Mendota Mental Health Institute to mentally ill people in police custody, forcing officers to make the trip to the treatment facility near Oshkosh.

The state stopped letting police take people in non-criminal emergency mental health detention to nearby Mendota on April 1, infuriating area police officials who complain that officers now have to waste their time ferrying them to Winnebago Mental Health Institute on the east side of the state. The state said it wants more beds at Mendota to house criminal patients.

“You have someone who’s in an episodic crisis being put in handcuffs, thrown in the back of a squad car, two officers if you want to do it safely,” said Madison Police Chief Mike Koval. “That’s two and a half hours up, two and a half hours back, so now my community has two fewer officers fielding calls, preserving quality of life issues for a total of five hours, and the state says, ‘Too bad.’”

On Tuesday the Madison City Council will vote on a resolution to allow the city to commence legal action against the state Department of Health Services, which issued the ban at Mendota. The measure was introduced by Mayor Paul Soglin.

Local mental health providers have also expressed concern over the policy, saying that the long distance will make it difficult to coordinate mental health patients’ return to the community.

Koval said he’s been working with other area police officials and providers such as the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and Journey Mental Health to deal with the issue.

“I have galvanized the Dane County chiefs of police,” he said. “They’re in support. We just feel collectively as a group, when you consider that Milwaukee and Madison lead this state in the amount of referrals for emergency detentions, it makes no sense to take one of the primary users of that, one of the primary stakeholders, and unilaterally say, 'You’re going to take them to Winnebago.'”

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.