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Mental Health Response Changing For the Better in Washington State
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Mental Health Response Changing For the Better in Washington State

by Leah AnayaJanuary 1, 2021

Washington State – Agencies all around Washington are exploring different ways to get mental health professionals involved in calls involving subjects in mental health crisis or with a substance abuse issue.

SPOKANE:

The Spokane Police Department, Spokane Valley Police Department, and Spokane County Sheriff’s Office have recently been praised by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC) for their co-deployed behavioral health teams. WASPC shared their compiled data that showed Spokane had a successful November as far as keeping those in crisis or facing substance issues out of jails.

The three Spokane agencies mentioned work with civilian social workers and mental health professionals from Frontier Behavioral Health when necessary to assist those who might be considered a “crisis contact,” which is defined as “a person who is experiencing increased emotion and decreased reasoning.”

The civilians joining with the officers is a part of the area’s Behavioral Health Unity (BHU). WASPC said that November saw a rise in calls for the unit, which had 151 crisis contacts. Not only does the BHU offer an enhanced avenue for people in crisis in the long term, but they also relieve patrol of calls and man hours. According to WASPC, patrol was relieved of 245 calls, which equals out to about 152 hours.

KXLY.com reported on the program as well. The outlet said, “According to SPD, 75 percent of the contacts had an outcome other than jail or hospitalization; 22.5 percent were emergently detained; 57.4 percent resulted in referral; and 8.1 percent were diverted from jail or the hospital. Only .48 percent were arrested and there was zero use of force beyond handcuffing.”

VANCOUVER:

The Vancouver Police Department has recently been the recipient of a grant through WASPC in order to enhance their crisis response. An admin from VPD told me about the program that was supposed to begin in April but got pushed back because of COVID-19. It began in October and involved Sea Mar Services, which employs the mental health professionals (MHP) and designated crisis responders (DCR) that are a part of the program.

In the enhanced team, a MHP is available to be dispatched at an officer’s request for higher priority mental health crisis calls, such as a suicidal subject. The MHP will meet the officer at the call and stage until the area is deemed safe by the officers on scene. The DCR, who conducts the evaluation to see whether a mental health hold is permittable or appropriate, is also available to meet the subject on scene rather than responding to the hospital after the fact.

The MHPs are available to the police department during set day-swing hours (such as 10am-8pm) Monday-Friday, and any other time the police operate as usual.

Additionally, they have implemented a Crisis Wellness Center, which is where people are brought when they’ve committed a crime and it may not be appropriate to send them to jail, such as if they transient, have mental health issues, etc. With this, a committee of police officials, judges, social workers, etc. attempt to get diversion or services for the subject before they’re charged with a crime to attempt to circumvent the need for jail if another option would fit the situation better.

This center is available for officers 24/7, as is the detox/sobering unit (if beds available) in order to give people a place to sober up instead of having to be brought to jail or the hospital.

The admin I spoke with at VPD said that though it’s early, they are already having success with the enhanced mobile crisis team.

TRI-CITIES:

In Kennewick, officers have reportedly had this type of program for almost two years through Lourdes Mobile Outreach Team. A mental health professional is a part of the mobile response team for people in crisis, including being in the cars with the police.

Two MHP’s are stationed in all three police departments in the tri cities (Pasco, Kennewick, and Richland) covering day and swing shift hours Monday-Friday. When they’re on duty, the MHP’s are co-responders with police. They’re in the vehicles with the officers throughout the day and respond to any calls for which they may be of service. The MHP’s respond to all of Benton and Franklin Counties.

This type of program is intended to blend both worlds and allow the MHP’s to see what law enforcement sees in real time, according to Cameron Fordmeir, who is the manager of the program.

Deanna Petrilli, who is the supervising team leader, told me that the officers stay with the MHP the entirety of the contact for safety. She said they stay in the car or stand back from an incident until the officer deems it to be safe. She also said she couldn’t imagine being on those calls without police there with her. “At least once a week,” Petrilli told me, “I think, ‘Thank goodness they’re here!’ They really helps deescalate and keeps everyone safe.”

Petrilli said the MHP’s aren’t armed or trained for self defense, and they also recognize that they’re a tactical liability to the officers on scene. She emphasized that teamwork between the MHP’s and the officers is crucial.

Fordmeir said, “I think doing it any other way is not efficient, because you’re able to see the same thing the officer sees. If an officer is on scene and calls for a response, they then have to sit and wait for a crisis responder. By the time the MHP arrives, the person has sobered up or calmed down, eaten, been in the hospital, and can have a completely different disposition.”

He continued, “The conversation can be held right then and there: Here’s what we can do civilly, here’s what police can do criminally. We don’t have to wait for a report, it’s all in real time. Teamwork with the police departments has made a huge difference.”

Petrilli said that they do have crisis services as well which is 24/7, so the MHP’s are call responsive if they’re needed in the middle of the night, in an extreme situation. She said they’re not hostage negotiators, but can provide clinical perspective to assist in making determinations. They also consult and give collateral information from command centers.

When asked whether they’ve seen success, Petrilli said, “We have absolutely seen success. It used to be people with mental health problems sat in jail, some even died, before their evaluations got done, because if their competency is raised, they have to sit and wait for an eval. I knew a person that was homeless for 10-15 years, and they really fell through cracks. With this crisis response, they’re now in a permanent program getting assistance.

“People like that go under the radar. They don’t get raised to the level of a ‘crisis,’ so they just keep getting contacted by the police. It’s a cycle.”

Fordmeir said the program is designed to assist the people who are going to jail for nuisance crimes and chronic homelessness, due to mental illness. He said they’re not going to seek out programs on their own, so having a MHP there to help on the scene to get them connected to the resources is ideal.

Petrilli also told me that sometimes the subjects would rather talk to the police than the MHP’s, and that’s perfectly acceptable. She said, “People don’t give officers enough credit for being great at talking to people. I’ve learned just as much from them as they’ve learned from me. They work hard to get their officers trained and to be in a positive environment to be able to talk to people in that way.”

Fordmeir agreed, saying, “We found out right away that officers are great at de-escalation. They are already doing what we ask them to do; where they need assistance is navigating resources, terminology, stuff like that. They don’t need us to talk for them, we just needed to blend the worlds.”

The demands that we have seen for most of 2020 regarding police reform are not new ideas to police themselves. In fact, it’s widely known around policing that officers are expected to handle way too many different types of calls. We are babysitters, we are mediators, law enforcers, counselors, advise givers, and more.

It’s not a bad thing, and it’s actually welcomed, for programs like this to take some of the stress and the call load off of the plates of the police and to offer real solutions for the community rather than the band-aid of repeatedly jailing the same people over and over again.

About The Author
Leah Anaya
Leah Anaya
Leah Anaya is a medically retired police officer. She served for three years at the Oakland Police Department, and just under five at a department in Washington State. Before that, she was an intelligence analyst in the US Army. She is now a stay at home mom living with her husband, who is still serving as a police officer, and their three children. She also grew up as the daughter of a police officer in California. Leah is now a writer and Deputy Editor at Law Enforcement News Network as well as the Business Manager for Washington State FOP. She's a peer support advocate for The Wounded Blue and Serve and Protect. You can find her on social media @leahmsanaya or at www.leahanaya.com.
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Concerned Citizen
Concerned Citizen
5 months ago

The Tri-Cities Mobile Outreach Team is a model program that should be adopted in all counties and cities within Washington State.