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Law Enforcement/Mental Health Collaboration - A National Perspective


SheriffLaw Enforcement/Mental Health Collaboration - A National Perspective

Today, safely and effectively dealing with the mentally ill is a challenge for law enforcement officials at all levels of government. Just turn on the television and you will see a story on the news involving an encounter by an officer and someone who is suffering from some form of mental illness.

According to a study by the Mental Health America (MHA), approximately 10 percent of all police contacts involve persons with some degree of mental illness or who are experiencing a significant mental health crisis. Further, MHA reports that the percentage of persons with serious mental illnesses in the United States rises to more than 14 percent for males and more than doubled that (over 30 percent) for females in pre-trial holding facilities[1].

This is not just a local issue, it is a national issue widespread across all jurisdictions it does not matter if you are in New York City or right here in Kendall County, Texas. Every law enforcement agency is dealing with the same issue.

Because mental health in our communities and in our jails has become such an important topic, I would like to, first, identify some of the commonalities between our county and the rest of the nation. Then, look at the various approaches used across the nation to address this multi-faceted and complex issue. In future articles, I will discuss our county-specific challenges; the lessons we've learned from others; what we have done to address the problem; and where we are today and in the future.

We are not alone. Law enforcement agencies nationwide are exploring ways to improve their response to these mental health issues. Some agencies are emphasizing additional training for their officers, such as verbal de-escalation training. Some agencies have integrated mental health professionals within their organizations to respond alongside commissioned law enforcement officers. Others have chosen to replace sworn officers with mental health professionals who are trained to recognize when law enforcement backup is required-and request assistance sooner than later. The commonality is that we all recognize the problem; the challenge now is to identify the safest way to address it.

Nationwide, there have been many lessons to be learned. For example, the Overland Park Police Department in Kansas added a new mental health team, dressed in "low key" uniforms, wearing plain khaki pants and black shirts. They ride in unmarked vehicles and use a therapy dog to provide care for persons experiencing a mental health crisis.

Conversely, in Tucson, two crisis-response social workers who responded to a 9-1-1 call for a welfare check on a 50-year-old man were kidnapped. As a result, the police department is seeking to staff their communications center with mental health professionals who can help triage future calls to mitigate the dangers to those responding. Similar strategies are being adopted across the nation.

One of the more successful programs is one from right here in Houston, Texas. The Houston 911 Crisis Call Diversion (CCD) program was implemented after several years of research into the vast numbers of calls for service by the Houston Police Department coded to "mental-health related" issues.

The program is a "multi-agency collaboration" between the centralized 911 call center and the Harris Center for Mental Health and IDD. At the call center, they house both fire and police communications; and when a call comes in, call-takers take the basic information; and then, if appropriate, put that call over to the dispatchers and the CCD workers at the center. If the call has a mental health nexus, the CCD workers pull the call to determine if it is something they can respond to immediately over the telephone or whether they need to send a unit and an ambulance. Similarly, if a patrol officer arrives at a scene and discovers an individual is in a mental health crisis that does not necessarily require a law enforcement response, the officer can request specialized mental health professionals respond. This program has been remarkably successful and has diverted calls from the traditional 911 response (police, fire, and EMS) to a mental-health only response.

In 2021, the KCSO responded to over 200 mental-health-related calls across Kendall County, with nearly 100 Emergency Detention Orders issued. Nearly 20 percent of the inmates currently housed in the county jail are taking mental health medications. Of those inmates, approximately 16 percent are on more than one mental health medication.

In upcoming articles, I will talk about the history and current challenges we face in Kendall County; more of the lessons we have learned over the years; how we are tackling those challenges; the role of our Crisis Intervention Team, and the work they have accomplished; and the future of our program.


Special note and credit:  To Doug Wyllie, contributing web editor for POLICE, where much of the data for this article are attributed.

[1] Doug Wyllie, contributing web editor, POLICE Magazine, December 2021.

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