Community mental health and law enforcement collaborate to keep people out of jail

“When an individual gets tangled in the criminal legal system, instead of addressing the root cause, which is an unmet behavioral health need, it only exacerbates issues.” ~ Lisa Gentz, Washtenaw County Community Mental Health 
Katie Hoener works with Washtenaw County CMH's crisis negotiation unitOn a regular basis, the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office and other local law enforcement agencies receive calls about a certain man engaging in behavior that creates a nuisance in the community. By connecting that man to the county’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion and Deflection (LEADD) program, his interface with law enforcement decreased and, for the first-time ever, he completed a substance use treatment program.

This is just one of many examples of the success of police-mental health collaborations that take place throughout Michigan.

“When an individual gets tangled in the criminal legal system, instead of addressing the root cause, which is an unmet behavioral health need, it only exacerbates issues,” says Lisa Gentz, Washtenaw County Community Mental Health (WCCMH) program administrator for the Washtenaw County Public Safety and Mental Health Preservation Millage.

Through LEADD, an evidence-based law enforcement diversion tool, when an officer engages with individuals who appear to have a behavioral health and/or substance abuse disorder and are involved in low-level criminal behavior, such as shoplifting or trespassing, the officer may connect them with community mental health. If the individual participates in harm reduction case management, their charges could go away.

“This actually reduces recidivism — the likelihood of further criminal involvement on behalf of the individual — by getting the individual connected to mental health and substance use resources and support,” Gentz says.

Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton
Building Layers to Connect

A sequential intercept model shows how individuals with mental and substance abuse disorders come into contact and move through the criminal justice system. Because there are so many points of entry, jail populations have a large number of inmates with mental health needs. Gentz says Washtenaw County assessed its jail population and found that about 30% of those incarcerated suffered from severe mental illnesses and 70% lived with substance use disorders.

Melisa Tasker, WCCMH program administratorThrough that process, the county began to develop several intercepts to help keep these people out of the jail system and connected with treatment. In 2017, Washtenaw County residents passed the county Public Safety and Mental Health Presentation Millage, which has allowed the county to expand services and provide diversion programs such as LEADD. 

“There's so many layers,” said Melisa Tasker, WCCMH program administrator. “We have the specialty court system. We have LEADD. We have a crisis team. We have CRU (co-response unit), and then we also have the CNT (crisis negotiation unit). So, yes, there's quite a lot.”

Tasker supervises the WCCMH crisis mobile team, which can be dispatched 24/7 anywhere in the county. The team added CRU — a mental health professional rides along in the deputy’s car. By doing this, the clinician is available to make real-time decisions while listening to dispatch or at the scene.

Katie Hoener, program administrator, WCCMHAccording to Katie Hoener, WCCMH program administrator, the CNT also makes real-time decisions. Made up of about 20 law enforcement officers and four mental health professionals, the unit works together on high-risk scenarios such as a barricaded shooter or high-risk suicidal situations. WCCMH also serves as the provider in mental health court and two substance abuse courts and in the jail, with the millage funding elements of these initiatives. The millage also aids in the county receiving a Second Chance Act grant from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance for its jail reentry program, which the sheriff’s department is currently working to develop.

“The hope is we can really show that these strategies and interventions work and then help to start creating new funding opportunities to be able to continue to do this work because it really takes a commitment from multiple sectors,” says Gentz. “The mental health sectors have got to put some skin in the game. The criminal legal sectors have got to put some skin in the game. We all have to braid things together to get this to work well, because it's really a group effort.”

Sanilac County Sheriff's Office and Sanilac County Community Mental Health CEO Wilbert Morris
Building Relationships

 According to its CEO Wilbert Morris, Sanilac County Community Mental Health (SCCMH) has had a longstanding relationship with its local law enforcement. The Sandusky police chief serves on the SCCMH board, and Morris talks to the Sanilac sheriff at least once a week. The two sit on a number of community boards including the safe partnership millage board, which raises funds to address homelessness, domestic violence, and child abuse.

Those relationships have led to such programs as the Thumb Opioid Response Consortium, free psychological assessments to the sheriff’s department, which are required for anyone entering law enforcement, and, for about the past 10 years, free Mental Health First Aid training for all local law enforcement and community organizations. Mental Health First Aid training is a two-day training that focuses on how to interact with individuals who have behavioral health concerns in the general public.

“It is nothing different than if you're walking in a restaurant and you see somebody choking on a chicken bone,” says Morris. “You know most of us hear that Superman song go on in our ear, and we run over to do the Heimlich maneuver because we can save a life. Well, you can save the life in another instance, too, when you see somebody who's depressed or just really having a hard time, and they just need a compassionate ear for five minutes. And that's what Mental Health First Aid teaches you.”

Sanilac County also has a long history of jail diversion with SCCMH having a program with every local law enforcement agency within its county, including the Michigan State Police who work in the area. 

“We work hand-in-hand with them when there's an individual with behavioral health concerns to make sure that, if they're being arrested or or charged, that it is not a reflection of their behavioral health conditions,” says Morris. “We divert people when appropriate, assessing them for hospitalization or for other types of treatment services.”
Sanilac County Sheriff Paul Rich and Sanilac County Community Mental Health CEO Wilbert Morris

Using Technology

A tool that has helped in identifying individuals with behavioral health disorders,  iPads were distributed at the beginning of this year to Sanilac County Sheriff’s Department. With the iPads, officers can consult in real-time with SCCMH when they suspect a person may be in a mental health crisis. Other law enforcement agencies in the county also are starting to use this technology. Morris says they are already seeing significant success with the iPad program as it has provided an opportunity for SCCMH to connect with individuals who might not have sought help at the community mental health agency for a variety of reasons. 

“I think as time progresses, they will be used more and more,” says Morris, who adds that iPads were a cost-effective alternative to having a clinician ride-along in the police car, which was not fiscally an option for the rural area. “To me, even if they're only used a couple of times a month and we can engage only a couple more people than we would have otherwise, they're definitely worth their weight in gold.”

Morris says as SCCMH looks to expand programs and services, the sheriff’s office is one of the organizations it will continue to get ideas from so “we’re thinking outside of the box and vice versa.”

“I consider our law enforcement one of our biggest partners,” Morris concludes. “Like everybody, we can always get better, but I think that we're all in it for the same reason. We're all here to make our community stronger, make our community safer, and make our community healthier.”

Joanne Bailey-Boorsma has 30-plus years of writing experience having served as a reporter and editor for several West Michigan publications, covering a variety of topics from local news to arts and entertainment. 

Photos of Washtenaw County staff by Doug Coombe.  
Photos of Sanilac County staff by Liz Fredendall.

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 MichiganCenter for Health and Research TransformationGenesee Health SystemMental Health Foundation of West MichiganNorth Country CMHNorthern Lakes CMH AuthorityOnPointSanilac County CMHSt. Clair County CMHSummit Pointe, and Washtenaw County CMH.
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