Mental health tools for modern policing
According to a 2019 nationwide survey of almost 2,500 law enforcement officials, the majority of whom had been officers for over 20 years, police and sheriff officers reported the unintended consequences of policy changes over the years which has removed the daily care of the nation's mentally ill population from the medical community, leaving it to be dealt with by the criminal justice system, “has caused a spike in the frequency of arrests of severely mentally ill persons, prison and jail population and the homeless population…(and) has become a major consumer of law enforcement resources nationwide.” The consequence of that for officers is that 70 percent reported their department spends an increased amount of time on calls for service involving individuals with mental illness, and dealing with them takes significantly longer than larcenies, domestic disputes, traffic and other calls.
As one officer told MentalIllnessPolicy.org, which reported the results of the survey, “The biggest problem does not lie with law enforcement. The problem is found when citizens can’t get assistance due to the 'danger' requirement. When they have nowhere else to turn, they call the police to handle the issue.”
Birmingham Police Chief Mark Clemence said departments have taken a “community caretaker” role well beyond traditional functions of law enforcement, including mental health emergencies, substance abuse and addiction, and other issues.
“Beyond our law enforcement function, we have a great deal of other things that we’ve been tasked with that make us become more of a jack of all trades,” Clemence said.
Locally, departments are working to counteract the problem and to help both their citizenry and themselves. At the Birmingham City Commission long-range planning meeting in late January, Clemence announced that the Birmingham, Bloomfield Township and Auburn Hills police departments will be partnering to create a mental health co-responder unit in cooperation with the Oakland County Mental Health Network in order to better provide crisis intervention response and follow up.
Currently a pilot program, the three police departments will share a dedicated social worker from the Oakland County Mental Health Network who would be provided office space, a computer, phone and support. The social worker will ride with officers on related calls, as well as lead on follow-ups. Clemence said it’s the first time police departments have proposed providing a full-time social worker through the county organization.
The Oakland County Sheriff's Department also has a new initiative, one that is new to the region, in which psychologists and counselors' with master's and doctorate degrees, undergo police training and become uniformed, armed reserve or part-time deputies to respond to calls involving mental health crises. The program is designed to take the burden off rank-and-file officers and provide care for those with emotional distress or mental health issues rather than putting them in the criminal justice system.
Thanks to major cutbacks in mental health spending in Michigan going back several administrations, police departments have inherited a new charge, so we applaud these efforts to address this modern day public safety issue.