Washington County Veterans Court, now in session

ST. GEORGE — Tuesday morning, Washington County’s Veteran Justice Review Team met at the St. George Vet Center at 664 S. Dixie Drive #C-102, to reach overall consensus and launch the Washington County Veterans Court program beginning Wednesday.

This collaborative effort between leaders from local law enforcement, counseling, legal, judicial and governmental agencies has been developing over the past six months and those participating came together to effectively launch the program with a concerted effort to allow it to take shape in the particulars as the nascent process is implemented.

At the heart of the program is a desire to bring training, understanding and skills to law enforcement officers who inevitably interact with veterans, and to provide veterans the resources needed to respond to and integrate challenges they face in a healthy and positive way.

The Review Team recognized that the two, law enforcement officers and veterans, inherently may have a propensity to escalate when they encounter each other. This can result in an otherwise manageable incident rising to a point of crisis.  St. George Chief of Police Marlon Stratton said:

You have to understand how important it is. As a police officer, just as a veteran going into combat, you’re thinking survival survival survival, you’re thinking enemy enemy enemy; and so, there are certain things that I think society in some cases would like to see police officers be a little kinder and gentler; but in some cases, your life is on the line and if you’re not prepared and if you’re not expecting the worse, you’re dead. And you know. I’ve been to far too many police funerals. 

… It’s the fact of the matter, the person you’re dealing with, they make the decision of how the outcome is going to be; and you can do many things to try to influence, to try to guide the direction of that person and what decision they will make, but in the bottom line they’re going to make the decision about what is going to happen.

Training

Deliberate police officer training will be incorporated to teach officers methods of operation specific to identifying and approaching veterans in the case of an incident, Washington County Sheriff Cory Pulsipher said. Each individual officer is different, some are good at talking people down in a heated situation while other officers may push buttons, so to speak, causing the veteran to escalate. In many cases, it’s just because the officers don’t have much life or military experience.

The officer training contemplated will be headed by veterans who can bring greater insight to officers from their own shared understanding of other veterans. It may include active law enforcement officers who are also veterans and can bring their own experience and insights to the training. Among his own force, for example, Stratton said, are 13 veterans, one currently serving in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

Awareness and identification

Veterans also need to know that the option of Veterans Court is available. One of the ideas to aid in this would be to include information about the availability of veterans court for those persons currently active in the military, so that when they return home they know that there is an alternative court system that may help.

“I think a lot of veterans don’t realize the resources that are out there,” Councilwoman Michelle Randall said.

Individuals who qualify for the new veterans court process by having military experience are not required to participate as it is voluntary. For example, the veterans court process may not be appropriate for or desired by veterans with an offense such as a traffic ticket or minor mishap. One of the Review Team’s goals and challenges is to be able to identify veterans the program can help and to make veterans aware that it is an available and valuable resource.

“Many people don’t want the stigma of mental health,” former Deputy Sheriff  Bruce Raftery said. “You don’t want to steer them away, veterans when they mess up, it’s a pride thing.”

How it works

St. George Vet Center Readjustment Counselor Bruce Solomon passed out the proposed participant’s handbook that outlines the expectations for the program such as details pertaining to supervision, treatment and the consequences that will ensue due to missed events or being tardy, as well as agreeing to sign a “Plea in Abeyance” which grants expungement of charges upon completion. Participants will receive the handbook upon entering the program.

“The structure is really tight and the rules are strict — it’s a one-strike deal — one strike gets you the clinical visits doubled for the rest of the program,” Solomon said. “Three times of being late gets you canned,” which is to say that the veteran who accesses the new veterans court system may be reassigned to the standard judicial process.

A work in progress

Establishing the program at this stage in its development allows it to be built around the people who need it, the veterans – which is how other veterans courts have operated, St. George City Attorney Shawn Guzman said.

Raftery is a veterans advocate and subcommittee chairman for the Mayor’s Veteran Advisory Committee in St. George. It was his idea, researched and fostered over the past four years, that brought the genesis of the Veterans Court to Washington County.

“Opening a Veterans Court is not just something I thought should happen. It’s something that needs to happen,” Raftery said. “When you sign your name on that line to serve your country, I think you deserve a little more. It doesn’t cost the state to feed them three squares and incarcerate them.”

The Veteran Justice Review Team includes: Judge John J. Walton of the county’s 5th District Court, Washington County Sheriff Cory Pulsipher, Washington County Attorney Brock Belnap, St. George City Councilwoman Michelle Randall, St. George City Attorney Shawn Guzman, St. George Chief of Police Marlon Stratton, St. George Vet Center Bruce Solomon, Southwest Behavioral Health counselor Shari Lindsey, Southwest Behavioral Health Clinical Director Michael Cain, Utah State Department of Workforce Services James B. Emery and veteran advocate Bruce Raftery.

St. George News Editor in Chief Joyce Kuzmanic contributed to this report.

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