On a hot Wednesday afternoon in August, a woman sat in the limited shade provided by the Longview City store across the street from the homeless encampment on Alabama Street.
She was waiting for a ride that arrived in about 10 minutes. A white car with blue Department of Behavioral Health lettering on the side pulled into the parking lot. The woman got into the back seat behind the two officers and the car drove off.
Longview Police Captain Brandon McNew watched the scene from a distance, not wanting to interrupt a good thing. Without releasing the woman’s name, McNew said he knows her as a frequent victim of 911 calls for disorderly public behavior.
“Just to be where he needs to be, on time, for an appointment is a sign of improvement,” McNew said.
It has been 13 months since the Behavioral Health Unit began working in partnership between the Longview Police Department and Columbia Wellness. The three-person team is sent out on calls with mental and behavioral health components, with the ability to respond to emergency calls as they arrive or do extensive follow-up with people who need more help to get to a stable place in your life.
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The partnership was fruitful enough that the program continued to expand throughout Cowlitz County. Longview is in the process of adding two more people to staff the unit seven days a week.
Meanwhile, the Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Office is in the final stages of rolling out its own unit this week.
“Law enforcement responds during a crisis with a short-term emergency where these guys can build longer-term relationships with people. They have the time and the directive to do that work there, working at the street level,” said Cowlitz County Sheriff Brad Thurman.
Longview’s contract for the unit expires at the end of 2022 and will have to be renewed in the city’s biennial budget to continue.
How the device works
The Longview City Council budgeted for two mental health professionals in the spring of 2021. A grant from the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police added a third member to Longview’s staff and placed another in Kelso.
Laura Eastwick is one of the founding members of Longview’s Department of Behavioral Health. When she first heard about mental health crisis units and frontline counseling work, she said she wanted to get involved. She described it as “a return to the roots of social work”.
“To see that you’ve helped someone feel a sense of dignity and worth that no one else has given them in a long time is a success to me,” Eastwick said.
Members of the Longview unit have been called to some high-stakes incidents. In the unit’s first three months, they responded to a bomb threat made against PeaceHealth St. John Medical Center and a person who threatened to kill himself by a cop.
As for the more day-to-day work done by the unit, McNew said the biggest benefit is the team being able to take the lead on calls with a mental health component and arrange follow-ups with the subject of those calls.
“It’s not about whether the police are too busy to take the calls. It matters if the service the person needs is a police officer, but in most cases it’s not,” McNew said.
On average, the device interacts with an individual four or five times. About half of the interactions are one-off for single crises or immediate dispatches. Others, however, received dozens of follow-up visits.
Extended help can be as simple as giving someone food and water. Members of the department will accompany people to medical appointments, receive resources from the Department of Health and Human Services or meet with service providers in the area.
Some cases relied on what Eastwick called “creative problem solving.” To help a person who is paranoid about their home being broken into, Eastwick said their department bought a basic motion alarm for the front door to help give them peace of mind.
“Most people are able to tell you what they need, even if it’s not the way you expect,” Eastwick said.
In the unit’s first year of operation, police and behavioral health experts have worked out how to take calls when they arrive to speed up responses. The biggest and most recent change to the device is the labeled car, which went live in June.
Transporting a person in crisis to a better place can be an immediate way to deal with their problems. Eastwick said at first the department wasn’t sure if it wanted the notoriety of a vehicle with a tag. As it turns out, this vehicle allowed people to alert members to emerging crises and helped establish the unit’s reputation in the community.
“Being associated with the police department gives us credibility with some people. For people that’s not the case, the fact that we’re mental health people gives us credibility, so most people are willing to engage with us,” Eastwick said.
The new unit of Kaulitz County
The sheriff’s office’s mental health unit has been in the works for about as long as Longview’s unit, but it’s just now getting up and running.
In May, Kaulitz County commissioners approved funding for the unit through the end of 2023, using the county’s mental health sales tax of one-tenth of 1 percent. The department has added members one at a time over the past month, each shadowing Longview’s behavioral health department to get an idea of what the job looks like before starting with the county.
Like Longview, the county contracts with Columbia Wellness as a provider, but has a different cast of team members. The county team has two counselors with experience in the state’s wraparound program with intensive services for juveniles with behavioral health problems and two counselors who specialize in substance use disorders.
“The vast majority of people we will get a call for help with will have a co-occurring substance use disorder. This was our bigger evolutionary aha moment in the last year, let’s weave it in,” said Columbia Wellness CEO Drew McDaniel.
The county team will have a wider geographic reach. The department will respond to calls from unincorporated parts of the county, cities like Kalama and Woodland that don’t have their own mental health units, and even sometimes help Longview. Members start with a tagged car provided by the District Attorney’s Office and tagged tactical vests.
Bobby Day, one of the substance use disorder professionals working for the county department, originally studied to be a police officer before going into training and counseling. Day said he is interested to see the data and success stories that will come out of the department over the next 16 months.
“We want to teach our clients how to be more resourceful, how to be more resilient, how to embrace opportunities in the community to become better if that’s what they want to do,” Day said.