Imagine a dispatcher at the Salina Law Enforcement Center being alerted to someone known to have mental issues, capable of causing anguish, injury, or worse.
Under normal protocols, officers with the Saline Police Department, Saline County Sheriff’s Office, or both, send officers to the scene.
If the subject is deemed to present a danger to self or others, the usual option is to arrest and transport to jail or a medical ward, both of which are often clogged and always expensive to operate.
By early 2023, a new kind of partner — mental health co-responders — will join law enforcement at the scene, trained to diffuse situations and provide care before issues escalate.
Co-responders, specially trained mental health experts, will be stationed at the LEC, Saline County Jail, and perhaps with other agencies, said Annie Grevas, Community Corrections director for the 28th Judicial District.
“Say they run across somebody in crisis, and can get them out of crisis and resolve issues,” she said. “The more help we get people in crisis, the better our community will be overall. Stopping crisis on the street is certainly the right thing to do.”
Co-responders approach issues in different ways, said Brent Melander, Saline County Undersheriff.
“They’ve had a lot more training in the mental health realm than what we have had. That’s what they deal with full-time,” he said. “I think that having them NOT be law enforcement might work better with some. They might be better able to communicate rather than just having somebody with a badge show up. Deputies do a pretty good job of talking with people, but that’s not our expertise.”
Co-responders are like mental health paramedics, said Roger Barnhart, crisis director at Central Kansas Mental Health, 809 Elmhurst in Salina.
A qualified mental health professional can be trained in psychiatry, psychology, counseling, social work, or psychiatric nursing.
“It’s a unique skillset,” he said. “Working in crisis is, in essence, its own specialty.”
The new program “will definitely be a learning process for us,” said Capt. Paul Forrester, in the police department’s Support Division.
“The biggest goal is to keep people out of jail. Sometimes it’s our only option,” he said.
Mental health occupies a good share of law enforcement time and effort. In 14 months of tracking calls, this year and last, the police department alone has responded to 830 calls, Forrester said, amounting to nearly 600 hours of time spent.
Many of the calls are dealing with repeat mentally ill patients who are in and out of jail, he said, when the help they need is elsewhere.
An essential key is correctly interacting on calls.
“It’s asking the right questions,” Forrester said. “We’re hoping with co-responders, maybe one of the mentally ill persons would reach out to someone and prevent something from happening. Maybe it can make a difference.”
Law enforcement officers and supervisors constantly review encounters, both audio and video, Melander said, and it makes sense to “communicate and work things out without having to take somebody to jail.”
Using force ultimately takes officers “off the street for hours,” he added.
Having someone on the scene with vast knowledge in mental health can be a huge benefit, the undersheriff said.
“It’s somebody else who can answer questions, with resources that can be provided,” he said. “The ultimate goal is for everybody’s safety and to keep them from going to jail.”
A daily average of five to 10 county jail inmates have mental issues, Melander said.
“They truly are in dire need. They continually cause problems, add paperwork, and time commitments,” he said. “Many times, someone is booked out of jail and is taken to mental health. This is the first time we’ve really encompassed all of the groups.”
The Co-Responder Program in Saline County is funded by $199,125 of the $10.532 million in federal money that circled back to Saline County this year. It’s part of the $2.2 trillion American Rescue Plan Act, aimed to ease economic, governmental and personal effects of COVID-19.
The money will pay for two years of co-responder operation, Melander said, and has a chance of becoming permanent.
The program is meant to give mental health the attention it deserves.
“It’s multifaceted, to get services out of the buildings and into the community,” Barnhart said. “Developing community collaborations enable us to work together, to serve our shared community.”
Choices right now are limited when police intervene alone, said Cody Sparks, clinical director at CKMHC.
“When the police get involved, the only choices are to go to jail or the ER,” he said. “Now we call out a co-responder. Law enforcement stabilizes the situation, and we provide the right services at the right time and the right level.”
Mental health co-responders will do an assessment and determine needs; whether there are medical or substance abuse issues or the patient is suicidal.
“Are they taking their meds? What can we do to keep (the situation) from escalating?” Sparks said. “You have to care for everything that impacts the patient. The best way to get people out of the system is to keep them out.”
Co-response “is just adding another tool to the belt within the continuum of care. Our efforts are to meet our patients where they’re at,” Barnhart said. “The focus is on preventable health care, treating the holistic person, offering a better way of life. We want to keep them at the lowest level of care, providing the highest quality of care, enabling them to stay out of the system and live healthy and active lives within our community.”
Conceived by a local subcommittee of the Salina/Saline County Crisis Intervention Team the program will mimic co-responder mental health efforts in other communities.
The plan is to recognize mental health as its own unique and real issue, Grevas said.
“All across the nation, people are pairing mental health with law enforcement to avoid locking down mentally ill patients, and addressing crisis incidents while they’re out,” she said.
Typically, mentally ill persons are have high needs, but they’re not high risk,” Grevas said.
The police and sheriff’s office are all in on the Co-Responder Program, she said, and most recently, Salina Fire Chief Tony Sneider has expressed interest in pairing the Emergency Medical Service with mental health.
“It’s a great collaboration between the city and county, and mental health services,” Grevas said. “I was blessed to be part of it all. Mental health is at the forefront of almost everything we’re doing. We’re seeing an increase of mentally ill people being arrested and assigned to probation
The committee’s aim is to reduce incidents dealing with mental health in the city and county.
“Jails aren’t equipped to deal with the mentally ill. They’re equipped for high risk people who need to be locked down,” she said.
Training goes both ways, Melander said, and officers and co-responders will learn by on-call osmosis.
Mental health experts will have to become “familiar with radio protocol when something happens,” he said. “If they see something, they need to let us know. They will be trained in policies and procedures, day to day operations. We will also have deputies (versed) in what they can and cannot do. It’s going to be kind of cross-training deputies with co-responders and co-responders with law enforcement.”
Co-responders will be provided with a uniform, something in the range of polo shirts and khaki pants, Melander said, but they will not be armed.
While he was not sure whether bullet-proof vests will be worn by co-responders, the undersheriff added “that probably wouldn’t be a bad idea.”
Selling co-responders has been easy, said Monte Shadwick, a county commissioner who also serves on the committee.
“Normally, you’re trying to weigh one side against the other, but in this case there is no other side,” he said. “We’ve been working on figuring out ways to do the compassionate thing and stop the revolving door of mentally ill patients coming to jail, getting out and coming back two days later. This isn’t being soft on crime. This is just trying to get folks to the right place where they can get help.”
Mental health issues, such as depression, commands more attention these days, Grevas said, especially with the rash of mass shootings across the country.
“I don’t think it was something that was discussed in the seventies. We just didn’t know what depression looked like, and now we know,” she said. “We should never just assume that someone is just having a bad day. We have to care for everybody.”
FACTOID: Beginning July 16, a new three-digit dialing code, the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, will offer compassionate, accessible care and support to anyone experiencing mental health-related distress — whether that includes thoughts of suicide, mental health or substance abuse crisis or any other kind of emotional distress. People can also dial 988 if they are worried about a loved one who may need crisis support.
Until then, call or text 1-800-273-8255 to be connected to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
Source: SAMHSA, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration