Kalamazoo area police want closer ties to mental health experts. Now they are trying to make that happen.

KALAMAZOO, MI — Police responding to a domestic dispute between mother and daughter find a distraught teenage girl cutting herself.

A disruptive man in a parking lot appears to be having psychotic delusions.

A frantic call to 911 comes from a wife fearing her husband is suicidal or someone whose family member has overdosed on drugs.

In Kalamazoo County — as across the country — police calls frequently involve people in the throes of a behavioral health crisis.

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

Indeed, Kalamazoo County Sheriff Ron Fuller estimates that 60 percent of his inmates have mental health issues, “and that’s a good day.”

In 2021, Kalamazoo County’s central 911 dispatch received nearly 19,000 calls in which a behavioral health issue was reported, county officials estimate. That’s an average of 51 calls per day.

County police departments have been working for years to improve their response to such calls, especially following the Black Lives Matter protests two years ago.

But now, backed by a $500,000 federal grant, county police chiefs are teaming up with local mental health experts to take the reforms to the next level. Instead of a piecemeal, police department-by-department approach, they are designing a county-wide collaboration to strengthen the relationship between law enforcement and the mental health system.

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

“Our ultimate goal is that the day comes when many calls to law enforcement can be released more quickly and the mental health system can take over because it is not a law enforcement function. “, said Fuller. “All too often now, law enforcement is the only answer. We’ve had serious cases where we’ve had to physically hire someone, take them to jail, and the caller says, ‘That’s not not what I wanted”, and neither are we.”

The new project has four “pillars,” said Lindsey O’Neil, program supervisor for Integrated Services for Kalamazoo, the county’s community mental health agency. O’Neil is working with the county’s 10 police chiefs to oversee planning for the project this year, with implementation in 2023.

The first pillar is to create “a county-wide call-response model that has (mental health) clinicians available to respond in real-time to crisis situations,” O’Neil said. “How that plays out will depend on the model that group chooses to adopt.”

The second element is to open a 24-hour mental health crisis response 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 should open next year

RELATED: Urgent behavioral health care planned for downtown Kalamazoo

The third element is the creation of a county-wide group that will meet regularly to focus “on our high-risk, high-need individuals who are high EMS users and have a frequent recidivism rate” , O’Neil said. “We will try to create a holistic plan where we can consolidate services around these individuals and families to reduce the frequency of calls and the frequency of crisis situations.”

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

Such a coding system would let officials and the public know how many of those calls are received and how many result in arrest, hospitalization or diversion to other programs, O’Neill said.

It’s an ambitious project, but it bodes well that the collaboration will be led by law enforcement, said Jeff Patton, Kalamazoo’s head of integrated services.

The local police chiefs “came up to us and said, ‘We are ready. We want to take that next step. Our communities are saying we need it,” Patton said. will say. ”

The Memphis Model

Kalamazoo County is using the “Memphis Model” as the model for the project.

This model was developed after a 1987 Memphis police shootout in which a mentally ill man was shot by police. In the backlash following the death, the city worked with the National Alliance on Mental Illness and civic leaders to develop new strategies to manage those in mental health crisis.

From this specialized training emerged to educate police on mental health symptoms and conditions and how to effectively respond to calls involving behavioral health issues.

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

The program receives praise from local police departments.

“In Kalamazoo County, we have built a CIT-based problem-solving culture,” said Capt. Rafael Diaz of the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety. “It’s not like it’s a new program and people aren’t sure how effective it is and if it has good results. I’m almost going to tell you that within hours of going through the course, someone will have an experience where they can use those skills on the street.

But a US Department of Justice guide to the CIT and the Memphis model stresses that police training is only part of the program.

“The hardest lesson we learned was about the temptation of training,” says the guide. “Law enforcement and prisons continue to be the de facto system for responding to mental health crisis situations and housing people with mental illness. Law enforcement is under immense pressure to address this systemic challenge. We hear daily from agencies wanting to know more about CIT training, hoping it will be a solution to their problems. Training is an important step, but the goal of the CIT is not to train officers to be nicer and more gentle when taking people to jail.

“The goal of the CIT is to keep people safe and that is not possible if prison is the only destination during a mental health crisis,” the guide explains. “A CIT program should help connect people to 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 about policing; it is about community responses to mental health crises.

Challenges

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

Of Kalamazoo County’s 10 police departments, the Portage Public Safety Department has done the most with CIT training — nearly all of their officers have completed the CIT program, compared to about 90 of Kalamazoo Public Safety’s 240 officers.

Portage also requires its agents to report calls with a behavioral health component. A list of these calls is submitted weekly to Kalamazoo Integrated Services, which reviews them to determine which are the best candidates for follow-up. On Wednesdays, an ISK social worker travels with a Portage police officer to knock on doors and direct individuals and families to the appropriate services.

Granted, some police calls require immediate action, such as taking someone to a hospital’s emergency department, Blue said.

Calls referred for ISK follow-up are “more the things that can go under the radar, where we might respond to a complaint of a barking dog, and we find that an elderly person who has Alzheimer’s dementia has never seen a doctor and there is hoarding in the house,” he said. “The clinician initiates the follow-up, but we initiated it.

But Portage’s experience also underscores the barriers that exist, Blue acknowledged. People can refuse mental health counseling or other services. They may accept the offer of help, but then not follow through. They may not have insurance to pay for counseling or other services. The statewide shortage of psychiatric beds remains an ongoing problem. Medical confidentiality laws mean law enforcement may not know what’s going on once clinicians take over.

The new collaboration won’t be a silver bullet, officials acknowledge, but it should improve the ability of law enforcement officers to connect people to mental health services and make those efforts more consistent across the county.

“As we begin to pull the data and look at what’s happening in the community, hopefully we can really identify these high-risk, high-need areas, and figure out who needs what and where,” said said O’Neil.

Like Patton, O’Neil said she was impressed with the readiness of police chiefs to put a plan in place.

“There are a lot of moving parts to this and they’ve got everyone on board,” she said. “They said, ‘Whatever you need, whoever you need to make this happen, we’ll make it happen. “”

This story is part of the Mental Wellness Project, a solutions-oriented journalism initiative covering mental health issues in Southwest 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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