Support building for Kendra's Law in Tennessee

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Knoxville (WVLT) -- Some lawmakers, law officers, and care providers believe last month's shootings at a West Knoxville Hooters was proof positive Tennessee needs to adopt Kendra's Law, to protect the mentally ill from themselves and others.

“I lost a lot of blood and if it had happened any other way, I may not have made it through,” said Kris Key, the manager at Hooters who was wounded when David Rudd fired at the restaurant after a dispute over his tab.

Key has heard lots more about Rudd's mental history since the shooting, which killed customer Stacey Sherman three weeks ago.

“It just sounds like a person that doesn't need to be out on the street,” he said.

Mental illness has been called a silent shame.

Studies claim it affects more than a quarter of all families in Tennessee and more than half of the homeless population.

The problem is there is little resort, beyond courts and jail, for helping those who can't or won't help themselves.

That is why State Senator Tim Burchett (R)-Knoxville thinks his proposed Kendra’s Law might have prevent the shooting by allowing courts to compel men tally ill adults to get treatment.

The law would specify that they could only do it provided a health professional determines the patient likely wouldn't survive without supervision and has a history of not taking his or her medicine.

To invoke the law, a room-mate, parent, care provider or parole/probation officer would have to start a petition.

“If they don't participate, then they can involuntarily be placed at Lakeshore and the medication begins,” said Andy Black from the Helen Ross McNabb Mental Health Centers.

Some worry such a law would give the government and law enforcement the use the law against even healthy people.

“I can assure you that if anybody is needlessly locked up, then I'll be the first one to get involved,” said Sen. Burchett.

Estimates are that the law could cost Tennessee $1 million to $3 million a year.

What is not clear is what, beyond medicine, the $1 million to $3 million would buy, but care providers and law officers say simply maintaining the status quo, such as waiting for a crime to occur, clearly hasn't worked.

“Then they are a criminal, with a record, and then they get help,” said Ginny Weatherstone from Volunteer Ministry Centers.

“The figures on our budget are about $400,000 a year for medical supplies and psychotropic drugs,” said "JJ" Jones from the Knox County Sheriff’s Office.

Both Knox County’s and Blount County’s Sheriff's Offices claim a Kendra's law could cut their court and jail crowding by 10 to 15 percent.

And as for the more than half of East Tennessee's homeless population who reportedly admit to mental problems, it could help too.

“It can potentially reduce the likelihood that, that person will enter homelessness in the first place,” said Weatherstone. “We can prevent that criminal activity and help the person normalize before it happens. To me, that's a moral no-brainer.”

Kendra's Law is named for a young woman who was killed in 1999 when a mentally ill man pushed her in front of a New York subway train.

Sen. Burchett said the law failed in Tennessee last session because of money concerns.

He said he hopes Kris Key and the families of David Rudd and Stacey Sherman will help him get it passed this session.

He has not heard back from any of them yet.

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