Police in the Kalamazoo area want closer ties with mental health experts. Now they are trying to do that.

KALAMAZU, Michigan – Police in response to a domestic dispute between a mother and daughter have found a deranged teenage girl who cuts herself.

A destructive man in a parking lot seems to be experiencing psychotic delusions.

A frantic call to 911 comes from a woman worried that her husband is suicidal, or from someone whose family member has overdosed on drugs.

In Kalamazoo County – as throughout the country – police calls often involve people in the agony of a behavioral and health crisis.

“I would say that between 25% and 30% of our calls have a mental health component,” said Deputy Head of Public Safety John Blue of Portage.

In fact, Kalamazoo County Sheriff Ron Fuller estimates that 60 percent of his inmates have mental health problems, “and this is a good day.”

In 2021, the central dispatch of 911 to Kalamazoo County received nearly 19,000 calls noting a behavioral health problem, according to county officials. That’s an average of 51 calls a day.

District police agencies have been working for years to improve their response to such calls, especially after the Black Lives Matter protests two years ago.

But now, backed by a $ 500,000 federal grant, county police chiefs are joining forces with local mental health experts to take reforms to the next level. Instead of a piecemeal approach, police department by department, they are collaborating across the county to strengthen the link between law enforcement and the mental health system.

“We are not councilors,” said Kalamazoo County Sheriff Rick Fuller. “We are police officers trained to obey the law. And we are called to be mental health counselors in more calls than we would prefer.

“Our ultimate goal is to come the day when many calls to law enforcement can be released faster and the mental health system to take power because it is not a function of law enforcement,” Fuller said. “Too many times, law enforcement is the only answer. We’ve had serious cases where we’ve had to physically engage someone, take them to jail, and the caller says, “That’s not what I wanted,” and so do we.

The new project has four pillars, said Lindsay O’Neill, integrated services program supervisor at Kalamazoo, the county’s mental health agency. O’Neill is working with the county’s 10 police chiefs to oversee project planning this year, with implementation in 2023.

The first pillar is to create a “county-wide call answering model that has clinicians (mental health) to respond in real time to crisis situations,” O’Neill said. “What this will look like will depend on the model this group chooses to adopt.”

The second part is the opening of a 24-hour mental health crisis intervention center to provide first responders with a place to bring people in need of immediate attention as an alternative to hospital emergency departments. The new facility will be located at 440 W. Kalamazoo Ave. and is expected to open next year

CONNECTED: Emergency behavioral health care is planned for the Kalamazoo Center

The third part is the creation of a group within the county that will meet regularly to focus on our high-risk individuals with high needs who use EMS heavily and have frequent relapses, O’Neill said. “We will try to create a holistic plan in which we can embrace the services around these individuals and families to reduce the frequency of calls and the frequency of crisis situations.”

The fourth and final part, she said, is the establishment of a county-wide coding system for local police departments to facilitate better data collection for calls involving behavioral health.

Such a coding system will allow employees and the public to know how many such calls have been received and how many lead to arrest, hospitalization or diversion to other programs, O’Neill said.

It is an ambitious project, but foreshadows that the cooperation is led by law enforcement, said Jeff Patton, head of Kalamazoo’s integrated services.

The local police chiefs “approached us and said:” We are ready. We want to take this next step. “Our communities say we need that,” Patton said. “They are the ones who are leading it and saying that this is what we want to do, and they are putting their money where their mouth is, I will say that. ”

The Memphis model

Kalamazoo County uses the “Memphis model” as a template for the project.

This model was developed after a police shooting in Memphis in 1987, in which a mentally ill man was shot dead by police. In the post-death response, the city is working with the National Alliance on Mental Illness and Civic Leaders to develop new strategies for dealing with people experiencing a mental health crisis.

This has resulted in specialized training to train police on mental health symptoms and conditions and how to respond effectively to calls involving behavioral health problems.

Kalamazoo County Law Enforcement Agencies have been conducting these trainings for the Crisis Response Team since 2008, most recently this spring, when 42 officials from Kalamazoo, Portage, Kalamazoo, Vicksburg, Kalamazoo County Sheriff’s Office and Michigan State Police participated in 40 the hourly program.

The program is highly praised by local police agencies.

“In Kalamazoo County, we have built a problem-solving culture based on CIT,” said Captain Rafael Diaz of Kalamazoo’s public safety department. “It’s not like it’s a new program and people are unsure about efficiency and good results. I will tell you almost that within hours of taking the class, someone will have experience in which they can use these skills on the street. ”

But the U.S. Department of Justice’s CIT and Memphis leadership emphasizes that police training is only part of the program.

“The hardest lesson we’ve learned is the temptation to learn,” says management. “Law enforcement and prisons continue to be a de facto system for responding to mental health crises and accommodating people with mental illness. Law enforcement agencies are under enormous pressure to address this systemic challenge. We hear daily from agencies that want to learn about CIT training, hoping that this will be a solution to their problems. Training is an important step, but the purpose of the CIT is not to train staff to be kinder and gentler as they take people to prison.

“The goal of the CIT is to keep people safe, and that’s not possible if prison is the only destination during a mental health crisis,” the guide said. “The CIT program should help people connect with treatment and services and offer hope for recovery … Training-only approaches do not improve safety and reflect a misunderstanding of the CIT model. The CIT model is not just for policing; it’s about the community’s response to mental health crises. “

The challenges

For Kalamazoo County, the challenge now is to get to the next level. The four pillars of the new Kalamazoo County project are elements of the Memphis model.

Of the 10 Kalamazoo County Police Offices, Portage’s Public Safety Department did the most with CIT training – almost all of their employees went through the CIT program, compared to about 90 of Kalamazoo Public Safety’s 240 employees.

Portage also requires its employees to mark calls with a behavioral health component. A list of these calls is passed weekly to Kalamazoo’s integrated services, which review them to see which are the best candidates for follow-up. On Wednesday, an ISK social worker went out with a Portage police officer to knock on doors and direct individuals and families to the appropriate services.

Of course, some police calls require immediate intervention, such as taking someone to the hospital’s emergency department, Blue said.

The calls to track ISK are “rather things that can slip under the radar where we can respond to a barking dog complaint and find that an elderly citizen suffering from Alzheimer’s dementia is never he went to the doctor and there is an accumulation in the house, “he said.” The clinician takes the lead in the follow-up, but we are the ones who initiated it. “

But Portage’s experience also highlights existing obstacles, Blue acknowledged. People may refuse mental health counseling or other services. They may accept the offer of help, but then fail to implement it. They may lack insurance to pay for consultations or other services. The shortage of inpatient psychiatric beds across the country remains a continuing problem. Medical privacy laws mean that law enforcement may not know what happens after clinicians take over.

The new cooperation will not be a silver bullet, officials acknowledge, but should improve law enforcement officers’ ability to connect people with mental health services and make those efforts more consistent across the country.

“As we begin to retrieve data and look at what’s happening in the community, I hope we can really identify these high-risk areas in high need and find out who needs what and where,” O’Neill said.

Like Patton, O’Neill said she was impressed with police officers’ eagerness to develop a plan.

“There are a lot of moving figures in this, and they’ve put all their hands on deck,” she said. They said, “Whatever you need, whoever you need to make it happen, we will do it.”

This story is part of the Mental Wellness Project, a solution-oriented journalistic initiative covering mental health issues in southwestern Michigan, created by the Southwest Michigan Journalism Collaborative. SWMJC is a group of 12 regional organizations dedicated to strengthening local journalism. For more information visit swmichjournalism.com.

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