Michigan’s community mental health and law enforcement agencies team up to keep people out of jail

As awareness about how policing and mental health intersect grows across the state, more Michigan counties are involving community mental health agencies in law enforcement response and helping people with mental illness receive treatment rather than incarceration.

Sanilac County Sheriff Paul Rich and Sanilac County Community Mental Health CEO Wilbert Morris
This article is part of MI Mental Health, a new series highlighting the opportunities that Michigan's children, teens, and adults of all ages have to find the mental health help they need, when and where they need it. It is made possible with funding from Sanilac County Community Mental Health, North Country Community Mental Health, Community Mental Health Association of Michigan, and its community mental health (CMH) agency members. 

The Sanilac County Sheriff's Office is using a new tool that's proving quite useful for encounters with people dealing with mental health challenges. In January 2023, Sanilac County Community Mental Health (SCCMH) sent the Sheriff's Office a batch of new iPads, purchased with American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding. The tablets are intended to assist road patrol deputies responding to crisis calls by immediately connecting people experiencing mental health issues with trained social workers via video conferencing calls. 

The new devices have been quite a boon for officers in Sanilac County, which covers 962 square miles in Michigan's Thumb region. Before getting the iPads, deputies often would have to wait for staff to be dispatched from SCCMH, which handles emergency mental health screenings and offers 24/7 crisis intervention for the county. But the agency only has offices in two cities, Sandusky and Croswell, so responding to these emergency calls in person often has been a time-consuming affair for everyone involved. 

Sanilac County Sheriff Paul Rich is pleased with the difference the new technology is making in the county. 

"We're very excited. It has changed [response times] from hours to minutes," Rich says. "And a person who's not comfortable with law enforcement can [now speak] directly to somebody from mental health, who they maybe have a rapport with or who is a third party that they trust."

Sanilac County Sheriff's Office Sergeant Michael Moore opens his new iPadSCCMH CEO Wilbert Morris also is excited and thankful that the tablets have been increasing jail diversion, which helps individuals with mental health issues receive treatment rather than incarceration.

"If an officer has the ability to get a mental health professional on a video call for someone who's experiencing distress, maybe that person doesn't end up being booked in jail or doesn't end up in the ER," Morris says. "That's my hope."

Treatment over incarceration

Sanilac County isn't the only place in Michigan where authorities are using this technology for this purpose. The Ingham County Sheriff's Office currently has a similar program in place. More broadly, awareness is growing across the state about how policing and mental health intersect. The Police Officers Association of Michigan union has been working with Wayne State University to create a mental health training program for first responders. The Lansing Police Department now has a social worker on staff

Sanilac County Sheriff's Office and Sanilac County Community Mental Health CEO Wilbert MorrisSanilac County, however, has a long history of jail diversion. The collaboration between the Sanilac County Sheriff's Department and SCCMH goes back decades. The community mental health authority is also a long-time provider of jail behavioral health services to the county.

The partnership has only improved since the start of the pandemic, as the two partners began to rely on each other for services like security reviews and the psychological vetting of officers. 

"It's really strengthened our relationship," says Rich. "We can pick up the phone if we have questions for each other. We can throw ideas back and forth."

SCCMH has also grown closer to the county court system. Not long before the onset of the pandemic, the agency hired a court-jail liaison to notify its staff when individuals who are or could be under its care show up on the court docket. SCCMH now has a team of people working on this and has improved communication with area judges.

Sanilac County Sheriff's OfficeWhile Sanilac County agencies have increased emphasis on jail diversion, Morris stresses that law enforcement  still is very careful about how they use the tactic.

"If someone commits a crime knowing fully well the consequences, their behavioral health situation should not be a get-out-of-jail-free card," Morris says. "But we do have folks who really need more of a behavioral health intervention. We divert those people from the jail as best we can."

Stepping up efforts

On the other side of the state, North Country Community Mental Health (NCCMH) works with six partner counties — Antrim, Charlevoix, Cheboygan, Kalkaska, Emmet, and Otsego — to achieve similar goals through a national program called the Stepping Up Initiative

Although NCCMH long has used criminal justice liaisons to coordinate with jail staff and handle mental health screenings, the new program offers a much more holistic approach to jail diversion.

Brian Babbitt , CEO, North Country CMH"It's a data-driven initiative that is geared to look at different intercept points within the system to reduce the number of people with mental illness that are in jails," says NCCMH CEO Brian Babbitt.

Launched in 2015 by the National Association of Counties and other partners, Stepping Up relies on a six-step process that includes convening partners, collecting data, and using research-based methods to implement individualized plans. 

The program is currently active in 32 different Michigan counties. NCCMH and its partner counties are collaborating on the initiative with Wayne State University, which is providing technical assistance.

The program's partners are collaborating to implement jail diversion at a variety of different points, including contact with first responders, law enforcement, and the legal system. 

NCCMH focuses on helping different partners understand each other so they can work together more effectively. NCCMH also put together a first responders’ guide to assist with mental health-related interventions. 

The six counties NCCMH works with are all in various stages of implementation, with Charlevoix County being the furthest along. It will likely be another year or so before any meaningful data about the initiative's efforts is available. 

Challenges to progress

While NCCMH doesn't yet have statistics about how Stepping Up has been doing, a similar program in Monroe County has put up good results. Last year, the Monroe Community Mental Health Authority (MCMHA), which has been working with the Monroe County Sheriff's department, announced the county's jail diversion efforts had reduced recidivism, repeat offenses, by 37%  for incarcerated individuals suffering from serious mental illness.  

Despite this and the growing momentum of jail diversion efforts statewide, hurdles remain. According to Babbitt, the pandemic has intensified personnel issues for NCCMH and its partners and, at times, made jail diversion efforts more difficult.

"Every community partner that we need to collaborate with, including ourselves, has staffing shortages," Babbitt says. "The extra bandwidth it takes to get this in place can sometimes be a challenge."

Sanilac County Sheriff on patrolAnd in Sanilac County, as with other parts of the state, a general lack of resources has been a concern that's impacted not only staffing, but also a wide variety of issues, from access to treatment to the availability of public hospital beds for emergency care. 

Rich believes this is a problem that dates back decades to when state lawmakers slashed funding for state hospitals and community health programming, pushing many people with mental illnesses out on the streets. 

"The state failed us when they cut that funding and programs," Rich says. "Unfortunately, a lot of [people with mental illnesses] end up in the legal system because there is no safety net. So, anything that we can do at a local level to prevent that, we are going to do."

David Sands is a freelance writer based in Detroit. He's covered news for The Huffington Post Detroit as an assistant editor and for Mode Shift as a staff writer. Follow him on twitter @DSandsDetroit.

Photos by Liz Fredendall

Brian Babbitt photo courtesy North Country Community Mental Health.

The MI Mental Health series highlights the opportunities that Michigan's children, teens and adults of all ages have to find the mental health help they need, when and where they need it. It is made possible with funding from the Community Mental Health Association of Michigan, Center for Health and Research Transformation, Genesee Health System, Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan, North Country CMH, Northern Lakes CMH Authority, OnPoint, Sanilac County CMH, St. Clair County CMH, Summit Pointe, and Washtenaw County CMH.

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