‘They probably thought I was a criminal’: Baker Acted students say wearing handcuffs worsens their experience

Law enforcement agencies can involuntarily transport students to mental health treatment centers under a Florida law called the Baker Act. But when they use handcuffs to do so, which experts say is relatively standard, students say it makes their situation even worse.

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‘They probably thought I was a criminal’: Baker Acted students say wearing handcuffs worsens their experience

Photo by Alex Liscio

Photo by Alex Liscio

Photo by Alex Liscio

Photo by Alex Liscio

Cameren Boatner, Editor in Chief

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Editor’s note: Sarah and Sam’s names have been changed to protect their privacy.

Sam walked in for his appointment at FAU’s Counseling and Psychological Services in 2016. He didn’t expect to be escorted out in handcuffs, and patted down on Diversity Way in front of passing students. He’s not a thief, or a murderer, or a criminal of any kind.

The now 21-year-old student with schizophrenia was just talking to his therapist.

“They took me out to Diversity Way in handcuffs which was awkward because if I saw one of my professors or my boss, that just doesn’t look good,” Sam said. “No one sees someone in handcuffs and thinks ‘they probably have mental health issues.’ They probably thought I was a criminal.”

Sam was involuntarily taken to a hospital to be examined by mental health professionals under a law called the Baker Act. He made an off-handed comment regarding suicidal thoughts to his therapist, who thought he needed to be evaluated. When FAUPD showed up, they put Sam in handcuffs — something experts say many other police organizations do as well.

The use of handcuffs during a Baker Act is up to the individual law enforcement agencies, according to Lawrence Meltzer, a criminal trial lawyer in Palm Beach County who also takes Baker Act cases.

But Susan Stefan, a nationally accredited lawyer from Florida who has specialized in mental health law for 36 years, says it’s a “perennial problem,” and potentially “traumatizing” to a student. The Baker Act states that handcuffs and other restraints should not be used on people with mental illness except as “an emergency safety measure to be used in response to imminent danger to the client or others.”

No one sees someone in handcuffs and thinks, ‘They probably have mental health issues.’ They probably thought I was a criminal.”

— Sam, a student who was Baker Acted

FAU spokesperson Joshua Glanzer said, “In all cases where transportation to a treatment facility is being performed by an FAU police officer, the individual requiring transport will be restrained for their own safety and for the safety of the officer.”

Stefan confirmed that many law enforcement agencies’ policies are similar to FAU’s, stating police have a “blanket policy” of handcuffing anyone they transport.

We spoke to Fort Lauderdale Police Dept., who says officers “may” use handcuffs. Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office’s policy is to use handcuffs on non-criminal mentally ill people when they are violent, which is determined by the officer. We also requested Boca Police and Broward Sheriff’s Office’s Baker Act policies, but have not received a response as of publication time.

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Stefan says that although the use of handcuffs is a problem during a Baker Act, attempts to challenge it in court have failed. She says the problem isn’t even the handcuffs. It’s the police themselves.

“The problem is the use of police in psychiatric crises in the first place,” Stefan said.

Similar to Sam, Sarah says she wasn’t a threat to herself or others when she mentioned suicidal thoughts, but FAU police applied the Baker Act to her case too.

Sarah walked into the Victim Services office at The Wimberly Library to view the findings of a rape complaint she filed against FAU quarterback Chris Robison, but wound up handcuffed in the back of a police car.

She says although she wasn’t surprised to read that FAU cleared Robison, she still cried.  When her victim advocate, FAU’s point-person for crime victims, asked if she contemplated suicide, she said that while the thought crossed her mind in the past, she never acted upon it, and never had a plan or any desire to kill herself.

“I kinda made a joke out of it, I said ‘if I haven’t done anything since the rape, I’m not going to do something now. If I was going to kill myself, I would’ve done it months ago,’” Sarah said.

Still, her victim advocate called FAU police, who took her to a psychiatric facility for a 24-hour stay among the mentally ill. 

“That was pretty much the worst day of my life. It was almost worse than the rape because at least with the rape I don’t fully remember it. But this was like being raped all over again. 100 percent, it was worse for my mental health than if it never even happened in the first place,” Sarah said.

Sarah said she was alarmed when they put the handcuffs on her, but police told her it was their protocol. 

“A university, of all places, should have protocols in place for sexual assault victims that do not involve the use of police,” Stefan said.

But Stefan says using handcuffs during a Baker Act when the client is a sexual assault victim can be damaging.

“Think of being sexually assaulted, losing control over your body, and then being handcuffed, again losing control over your body. It is retraumatizing and haunts many young women for years,” Stefan said.

Inside a Baker Act

Sarah says she wasn’t violent, didn’t resist the police, and actually thought it was a good idea after they told her she’d be going to see a psychiatrist. But she thought she was just going to FAU’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS).

Things turned unpleasant when police cuffed her and took her to South County Mental Healthcare Center in Delray. The worst part, Sarah said, was FAUPD didn’t tell her what was going on. She had to learn that she was involuntarily hospitalized, pursuant to the Baker Act, from a nurse at the mental health facility.

The nurse wanted Sarah to take off her clothes and shower, and only when Sarah tried to explain that she was just there to speak with a psychiatrist and leave, did she learn what was actually happening.

“She said, ‘Sweetie, you’re here under the Baker Act,’ and I said ‘What the heck is that?’ and she told me. An employee at the mental hospital had to explain to me what the heck happened,” Sarah said.

Arrested development

FAUPD transported Sam to South County. There, he was evaluated, and a psychiatrist decided he needed to stay in inpatient care for about a week, he said. Sam maintains his experience there was worse for his mental health.

Sarah said she had the same experience — her mental health suffered more as a result of her Baker Act.

“I was sad throughout this whole thing, but I’ve never felt worse than when I was in that facility. I haven’t felt anything like that in my entire life. You’re so alone,” Sarah said.

A study from researchers at the University of South Florida found that out of the 7,128 suicides in Florida from 2004 to 2006, 16 percent of those people had involuntary examinations under the Baker Act. 

Among those on Medicare, the stats were even worse. There were 474 Medicare enrollees who died by suicide during those years, and 41 percent of them were Baker Acted. If you’re on Medicare and have been Baker Acted in the past year, you’re three times more likely to kill yourself than someone who hasn’t been involuntarily examined, the study says.

“The only thing they can handle is keeping the weapon out of your hands at that moment. They don’t give you any reason not to off yourself afterward,” Sam said.

The Baker Act might actually discourage students from disclosing their suicidal thoughts to therapists, Sam said. He felt like a criminal during his Baker Act at FAU, and said the use of handcuffs didn’t help his case.

“Unless the person is truly homicidal or hitting themselves, or hurting themselves, I think then it makes sense to restrain them in some form,” Sam said. “But when someone is scared and uncomfortable, and then they get handcuffed, it doesn’t add to the feeling of being in need of help as a patient, it just makes you feel like a crazy criminal.”

It’s all subjective

Regarding Sarah’s case, Meltzer said, “Rather than looking at that as an abuse, look at it from a police standpoint. Is it terrible for someone who’s going through something like this young lady? Yes. But there’s that balance there. What are police supposed to do if that’s their procedure? If it’s protocol for them to handcuff someone being transported, so be it.”

He said the Baker Act itself is also, sometimes, a grey area. In the police’s eyes, especially at FAU, Meltzer said there is a liability in letting someone with suicidal thoughts go instead of Baker Acting them.

“For me to say whether that Baker Act was right, wrong, indifferent is very nebulous. That’s because it all comes down to the officer,” he said. “Do I think sometimes officers unintentionally take things too far? Sometimes. But then they have to think, ‘Should I let this go?’ And if they did let it go, God forbid she went through with it.”