ORLANDO, Fla. – Orange County leaders said they are struggling with how to provide help to mentally ill residents who find themselves repeatedly arrested and charged with crimes.
Armando Montalvo, 35 of Orlando, was shot by Orange County sheriff’s deputies outside the World Wrestling Entertainment Complex in 2015 after they said he ignored commands to leave and tried to break down glass doors.
He was charged with aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer, resisting arrest with violence and trespassing.
According to court records, he was found not competent to proceed, and he was freed from custody.
Montalvo was arrested again in June 2020 during the height of the pandemic.
According to his criminal complaint, he was again arrested outside the WWE complex where a live stream of the incident showed him exercising. Deputies charged him with resisting an officer with violence, battery on a law enforcement officer and trespassing after a warning.
Court records showed this marked Montalvo’s seventh arrest in seven years and for a seventh time, he was scheduled to undergo a competency hearing.
Orange and Osceola County Public Defender Robert Wesley could not speak directly about Montalvo’s case, but he told News 6 that his team works hard to make sure their clients understand what is happening in their court proceedings.
According to records obtained by News 6, 3,861 competency exams were ordered in Orange County court cases between 2017 and 2019, costing taxpayers $1.3 million.
A source close to the legal system told News 6 there is currently a backlog of exams. Where it usually takes 45 days to complete an exam, legal teams were now waiting 90 days.
“The competency system — at least in felonies – works, but it just doesn’t accomplish anything,” Judge Steven Leifman in Miami-Dade County said.
Leifman can be best described as a pioneer in changing the way the legal system prepares mentally ill defendants for court or “competent to stand trial.”
“It’s cruel what we do right now. It’s dangerous what we do right now,” he said. “It’s a waste of critical tax dollars, and it threatens public safety unnecessarily.”
Leifman helped develop and implement a program in Miami-Dade called The Criminal Mental Health Project.
Law enforcement there is now trained to identify suspects who may have mental health issues and a mental health professional can be called to the scene.
Once the subject is stabilized, they are given an option to continue treatment or go to jail to face the criminal charge, according to Leifman.
He said the numbers over 10 years show results.
He said arrests were down 56%, the number of people re-offending is down 33% and the number of officer-involved shootings is down 83%.
Fewer arrests resulted in Miami-Dade County closing three of its jails, he said, saving taxpayers $12 million per year.
“We have two choices: We can release these people with treatment, or we can release them without treatment,” he said. “We know what happens when we release them without treatment. They just keep coming back.”
SEARCHING FOR LOCAL SOLUTIONS
“I think if you talk to the jail director, he would tell you that he runs the largest mental health facility in the county,” Chief Judge Lisa Munyon said.
Munyon said implementing any new mental health initiatives in Orange or Osceola County would take money that she does not have.
“You can’t stand up facilities, treatment programs, pay treatment providers without the resources to do that,” she said.
Munyon said those resources would have to come from Orange County’s Board of County Commissioners and Mayor Jerry Demings.
Demings told News 6 he worked with Leifman previously on a state board.
He said he is also witnessing a growing problem with mental illness.
“My observation is that when I come into the downtown corridor, I see a growing number of individuals who are likely mentally ill and homeless, and it’s disturbing to me,” he said.
In May, Orange County commissioners approved a $315,000 study of the county’s mental health services.
The Heart of Florida United Way was commissioned to study services available at the county-level and services provided by private organizations, such as hospitals and psychiatric care facilities.
“It just may be that we may not be talking about a lot of new money but using more efficiently, and effectively, the funds that we currently have,” Demings said.
The results of the study were expected to be released in February 2022.