Partnership between Washtenaw County sheriff and community mental health strengthens crisis response

Community mental health professionals have been a formal part of the sheriff's office's Crisis Negotiation Team since 2019, with positive results for both agencies.
This past March, a 32-year-old armed man barricaded himself in his Superior Township home. While details of a dramatic 36-hour standoff with police made headlines across the state, today many Washtenaw County residents remain unaware of an important detail: critical to the ensuing peaceful resolution was a partnership between the Washtenaw County Sheriff's Office's (WCSO) Crisis Negotiation Team (CNT) and Washtenaw County Community Mental Health (WCCMH).

"This was a young man with anger and mental health issues who ... woke up one morning and started shooting a gun in his house. Thankfully, Community Mental Health was right there, on the frontlines, helping us out with what we were hearing and seeing," says Sgt. John Cratsenburg of WCSO. 

Cratsenburg has been a hostage and crisis negotiator since 2013 and has served on the countywide team since then. Currently, he's the team commander of all the crisis negotiators across Washtenaw. Cratsenburg also played a big role in putting the final touches on the CNT-WCCMH collaboration that has been in place since 2019, thanks to funding from the county's Public Safety and Mental Health Preservation Millage
Washtenaw County Sheriff's Office Sgt. John Cratsenburg.
"This is an important, immediate service that you might not necessarily know is out there, but it's one that provides longer-term safety and security for the community," he says.
 
Lisa Gentz, WCCMH's program administrator for millage initiatives, adds that one of the initiative's goals is to truly address how to better support community residents in crisis.

"As mental health professionals, we're trained to use our words and our de-escalation techniques to help people who are in emotional distress," she says. "To be able to bring these tools to these interactions in the community, I think, is incredibly helpful for our community as a whole."

From "different languages" to trusting partnership

Katie Hoener is the program administrator for the WCCMH side of the CNT, and she's also one of five mental health professionals who work alongside the 15 police officers on the team. She says WCCMH staff were welcomed into what was already a highly effective group of crisis negotiators.  

"It was really about trying to figure out how a successful crisis negotiation team could be successful in a new way. And they were really good about giving us space and the opportunity to insert ourselves," Hoener says. "We had a lot of learning to do because as mental health social workers, we interact a lot with law enforcement in our job, but it was never as members of their team."

She adds that both sides worked sincerely to learn each other's language and style. WCCMH members have even had to learn how to deploy police equipment and must undertake the same training as their police counterparts. The officers also have to learn some of WCCMH's language. Most recently they underwent an eight-hour training session that focused on the mental health of  juveniles in crisis.
Katie Hoener from Washtenaw County Community Mental Health.
"It was certainly not a Hollywood romance story at the beginning. We had different languages and different approaches," Hoener says. "But what brought us together was that we all wanted the same outcome, which was safety and the successful resolution of a crisis."

Cratsenburg says he was excited about the new resources and assistance WCCMH members would bring to the CNT, but he was also initially a bit nervous about the partnership because "we're wired differently." However, today he says he not only counts them as members of the team, but also as trusted friends, and he "wouldn't give them up for nothing."

"Looking for clues and cues"

Hoener estimates that she's been called out to help the CNT about 10 times so far. Typically she'll receive a phone call to go to an address and sometimes she'll also get the name of the person who is in crisis. In those cases where the subject is identified, another mental health professional on the CNT will start looking up the person's medical history and other background information for Hoener to have when she arrives on scene. From there, she might be able to share some of the subject's mental health and medication or substance abuse history, or even insight gleaned from social media accounts. Then she can advise the CNT officers as to how these elements may come into play as they negotiate. 

"Like us, they are looking for clues and cues, but through their lens," Cratsenburg says. "For instance, I might see lots of people who are bipolar over years and might not immediately clue in, whereas mental health professionals might see hundreds of people who are bipolar in a much shorter time and can more readily see what's going on."

He adds that WCCMH will also listen in to calls that he and other negotiators are having with a person in crisis or their family members. It allows them to both assess if an approach is working based on what symptoms the person is presenting, or if switching out negotiators might be needed. 

"They really are there to take care of everyone's mental health," he says.

"We've really enhanced the ability of the whole team"

Gentz stresses that WCCMH has always been available to the community and that the CNT has called on WCCMH's crisis team for help with coordinated responses even before WCSO and WCCCMH formalized their partnership. WCCMH also has a number of other partnerships with WCSO. For instance, WCCMH is the service provider for people with behavioral health disorders in the county's jails.

This newer formalized partnership, however, makes it more likely that a person experiencing a mental health crisis will receive the help that they need — both in the moment and through follow-up — rather than finding themselves arrested and perhaps jailed unnecessarily. 

"What makes this effort different and special is the combined training and relationship between the team members," Gentz says. "Having us work together ultimately leads to safer outcomes, and that has an impact both on the person in crisis and our whole community."
Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton.
Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton says he's very happy with the joint effort thus far. He explains that about 10-15 years ago CMH staff were working with the CNT and SWAT, but a move to combine what was then four county SWAT teams resulted in the eventual dissolution of that operational model.

He stresses that adding mental health professionals has allowed his office to continue to meet two foremost guiding principles of a successful SWAT mission: firstly, nobody must be harmed physically, psychologically, or emotionally as much as can be helped. And secondly, officers need to be able to meet people where they are. 

"It's just taken us some time to get back to that space, with recognition that so many of the people that we deal with, especially in barricaded situations, are in some kind of crisis," he says. "Our negotiators are well-versed and well-skilled in ascertaining the source of the issue that drove them to barricade, but now we've really enhanced the ability of the whole team."

Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at jaishreeedit@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.