A crisis can be an elderly man sitting at the end of his driveway in the middle of winter with a sign that says “Please Help Me.” A crisis can be a woman living in a mobile home that has been condemned where the management has been working with a state agency and getting nowhere. A crisis can be a veteran with PTSD in an agitated state.
Law enforcement officers come in contact with mental health crises every day.
“A crisis can really mean anything to anybody at any moment,” says Frankie Badur, a mental health clinician with Ottawa County Community Mental Health and a member of the county’s Crisis Intervention Team.
The team, which formed almost a year ago, helps people every day in mental health crisis and those who just need to be connected to resources — preventing a true crisis from ever forming.
The Ottawa County Crisis Intervention Team connected that man to a veterans’ navigator, Meals on Wheels, and adult protective services. They helped that woman move out of her home that day and to find mental health and medical treatment. They de-escalated the situation with the veteran and offered resources to help in the future.
“We act as a bridge between the people and resources,” says Michele Sampson, a
Crisis Intervention Team deputy with the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office.
Four agencies work together on the program: Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office, Holland Department of Public Safety, Zeeland Police Department and Grand Haven Department of Public Safety.
Time = biggest asset
Even animal complaints or domestic violence calls can have a mental health component, CIT officers say.
CIT officers can be specifically requested by other officers, dispatch, or the public. They wear a “soft” uniform such as a unit-branded T-shirt and khakis.
CIT officers’ biggest asset is time, they say. While road patrol officers have to make sure they are available as soon as possible for the next call, CIT officers are able to take their time with each interaction, sometimes spending hours with one person, providing immediate intervention as well as safety planning, follow up calls, connecting to resources, etc.
“Trying to meet a bunch of different needs is like a full-time job for someone in crisis. It’s too much for them to do on their own,” says CIT Program Coordinator Tim Piers
During COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, Ottawa County — like many places — saw a spike in domestic violence incidents and alcohol-related issues, says Sheriff Steve Kempker. Since the county started collecting statistics in October 2021, the mental health team has had more than 400 mental health-related interactions.
After more than three decades in law enforcement, Kempker says the Crisis Intervention Team is “by far I think one of the best programs.”
In the past, he says, “a lot of times there was no follow up.” By building the follow-up into the CIT model, fewer people with mental health issues are being funneled into the local jail system, Kempker says.
“This is something we should have done years ago,” he says.
Ottawa County Community Mental Health teams also work in the jail facility, making sure there is follow up and resources once inmates are released. There is also a mental health treatment court diversion program that allows people who have had multiple contacts with law enforcement, because of mental health issues to receive proper treatment instead of entering the jail system.
Repeat calls are down
Mental health incidents are an everyday occurrence for law enforcement everywhere, but repeat calls (multiple calls to the same address or person in a short time) have dropped since the CIT program began, officials say.
A $550,000 Bureau of Justice assistance grant will fund the CIT salaries and benefits for the next three years as well as mental health training for law enforcement and dispatchers.
The CIT program is ever expanding. Another deputy could join the ranks soon, Kempker says, and deputies across every shit are receiving some form of mental health training. (Fifteen, so far, have taken the extended 40-hour course; more will take a short course.) Dispatchers, ambulance, and fire crews will be included in that training.
“The whole public service sector is coming together on this,” Kempker says.
The ultimate goal is to eliminate gaps in the safety net, reduce the number of people in jails because of mental health issues, and to help them find the resources they really need.
“It’s the kind of help we would want for ourselves or someone we love in a mental health crisis,” Piers says.