A 14-year-old student was caught with a knife in his backpack at a local public school. He never took the weapon out of his bag, never threatened anyone, and reportedly told a teacher he carried the knife for self-protection only.
According to a Miami-Dade Public Schools Police officer the student was not punished, but instead admitted for an involuntary psychiatric evaluation under the Baker Act.
“He should have been arrested for possession of a knife, or a weapon on school groups, or suspended or whatever,” the officer, who asked to remain anonymous, told HuffPost. “You don’t Baker Act someone for something like that. And that’s going to carry with that kid for the rest of his life.”
The Baker Act, officially known as the Florida Mental Health Act, allows law enforcement to place those they consider a risk to themselves under “temporary detention for evaluation.” If necessary, they can be placed in a treatment facility for up to 72 hours.
Allegations of overusing the Baker Act to pad crime statistics are plaguing schools police Chief Charles Hurley, who has been reassigned pending an internal investigation. The Miami Herald reports that records show a sharp increase: More than 600 students have been Baker Acted during the 2011-2012 school year, almost doubling the number of such instances during the past 5 years.
A total of 646 cases in one school year year seems staggering compared to neighboring large school districts: Palm Beach County, the fifth largest district in the state, recorded 250 Baker Act cases so far this school year, according to district records, and the Herald reports Broward County, the second largest, had 120. Miami-Dade is the largest district in the state.
The officer and others inside the department claimed Hurley is responsible for the increase, and instructed officers to Baker Act students instead of arresting them.
Three complaints have been filed with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement regarding Hurley, but the FDLE declined to pursue a criminal investigation. The FDLE never contacted him about his complaints, the officer told HuffPost.
“I don’t know how they conduct investigations,” he said. “We were more than happy to show [data] to them. But nobody came and talked to us. And that’s disturbing in itself.”
Records show a second officer emailed the FDLE in May, stating she’d been told by an employee too afraid to speak out that “juvenile offenders were being unnecessarily Baker Acted instead of arrested. This is another way Chief Hurley has lowered the statistics.”
A third officer who filed a complaint did not make any allegations involving the Baker Act, but reported on Hurley’s temper and claims of racial and age discrimination.
According to the Herald report, accusations of overuse are not just coming from within Hurley's department:
[School psychologist] Frank Zenere wrote an internal complaint this month to a high-ranking school official saying his boss — Suzy Milano-Berrios, who runs the department of mental health and crisis management services and has been the subject of a slew of recent complaints from her own employees — “coerced us to persuade school officials and school police to Baker Act students, even at times when it was not warranted.”
Similar concern has reached Habsi Kaba, who coordinates Miami-Dade County’s Crisis Intervention Team, or CIT, program. She trains officers in mental health issues and the Baker Act and serves as their liaison.
“It has been brought to my attention that there has been some pressure to initiate involuntary exams,” Kaba said.
John Schuster, chief communications officer for the Miami-Dade district, suggested to HuffPost via email that the increase in the district is the result of a "heightened awareness ... regarding crisis intervention and the early warning signs of at-risk behaviors which could lead to suicide, school violence and/or homicide."
Schuster told HuffPost that use of the Baker Act has increased 79 percent statewide from 2000 to 2010, and that Florida exceeds the national average for mentally ill persons, averaging 9 percent of its population compared to a nationwide average of 3 percent.
But Miami-Dade County Judge Steve Leifman told the Herald that although about half of arrested students have at least one mental health disorder, "that does not necessarily mean they meet the criteria [for the Baker Act]."
WATCH: Chief Charles Hurley reassigned: