Sheriff hopes new Mental Health Unit prevents violence like Florida school shooting

SALT LAKE COUNTY, Utah -- Sheriff Rosie Rivera runs the largest Sheriff's Office in Utah, and she was meeting with sheriffs from large counties around the country when word came that a gunman shot and killed 17 people in a high school in Florida.

Talking on the phone with Fox 13, she said the crime made everyone at the gathering focus on the problems of mass shooting, and made her think of the importance of school resource officers and the potential of a new unit in the Unified Police Department.

UPD started a mental health unit in December of 2016.

It was the brainchild of Sergeant Jodie Sampson.

Sampson has been in law enforcement for 23 years, and says over time she's grown more convinced of the need for officers who understand mental illness and can follow through with a case after the initial contact and citation or arrest.

She researched approaches to the challenge, and found what seemed to be the best model in Los Angeles, where the LAPD Mental Evaluation Unit assists in response to suspects who seem to have mental illness requiring follow-up.

"We lose track of those after they've been taken to the hospital, and with this unit we're trying to ensure that we're not losing track," Rivera said.

Both Rivera and Sampson acknowledge they are just scratching the surface. They have three full-time staff members: Sampson, a detective, and a social worker provided by the County Department of Behavioral Health. They also have a crew of nine officers who devote some of their time on duty to the unit.

"Without funding all you do is respond," Rivera said. "We'd like not to just react. We'd like to be proactive."