The Madison Police Department says it is being forced to take drunk people to jail or leave them on the streets because of changes Dane County made at its detox facility over the past year.
Madison Police Chief Noble Wray sent a letter to County Executive Joe Parisi last week (PDF) asking him to immediately reverse the changes. In the letter, Wray complains that police objections to the new system have not been addressed.
"MPD [does] not want to be in a position where we would have to stand by, in a hospital emergency room, monitoring a prisoner until the individual detoxifies to the point where they could be incarcerated in the Dane County Jail."
The conflict has played out over the past couple of years. Before 2011, when intoxicated people were either charged with a crime or believed to be a danger to themselves or others, they were placed in protective custody and taken to the county detox facility on Industrial Drive on the city's south side.
But two years ago, Dane County decided that was not an effective approach to the problem of alcohol abuse. "What we were doing was running a revolving-door drunk tank," says Lynn Green, Dane County human services director. "Less than 5% of the people we saw there ever engaged in meaningful substance-abuse treatment."
The solution the county came up with was to begin paying for longer-term detoxification of problem alcoholics -- a five- to seven-day process, rather than 24 hours -- and placing them in a long-term treatment plan. To help pay for the program, it reduced capacity at the detox center from 29 beds to 14 from Sunday through Thursday. Ten of those beds are reserved people in the county's long-term detoxification program. The other four are either rented out (by Tellurian, which operates the facility) to other counties or available for police protective-custody situations.
On weekends, the center is fully staffed, leaving up to 19 beds available for police placement.
The Madison Police Department is not happy. Police officers dealing with extremely drunk individuals have few options available to them, says Capt. Joe Balles, commander of the south precinct.
Madison Police have seen a dramatic decrease in the number of protective custodies, from an average 196 a month in 2010 to 153 a month last year.
"Anytime you have a drop-off that significant, you've got to ask the question 'what's happening here?'" Balles says. "Did we end up putting some of those people at jail? Probably. Did they leave someone on State Street because they didn't know what to do with that person and detox was full? That probably happened too."
Balles says the problem is far-reaching, affecting not just police, but emergency rooms "and more importantly the dignity and respect of people suffering from alcoholism."
He adds, "It's unnecessarily endangering the lives of people."
The city attorney's office also believes the county is legally obligated to provide protective-custody care for people. In Wisconsin, only Dane and Milwaukee counties have full detox centers. Other counties take extremely drunk people to hospitals for care, but Madison hospitals won't admit people just because they're drunk, Balles says.
"By being pennywise and pound foolish, they are chipping away at the safety net that's always been there," he says. "They want to push it off on the emergency rooms. It's dumped on our doorstep. And we're not very happy about it."
Green is not unsympathetic to the plight of police trying to deal with wasted individuals. But she says she's been trying to get the community to better address the issue for years. She also says she told local agencies the facility could continue being run with 29 beds for an extra $205,000 but "got no takers."
"That's a problem the community needs to solve, and we're very willing to be a part of the solution and have tried to get the community to talk about it," Green says. "But the bottom line is that my department is not responsible for having that facility available. And under tight funding, I need to turn to what I'm responsible for."