By Amber Widgery
Gregory Stephens (a pseudonym) was contacted by a sheriff’s deputy in rural Nebraska on allegations of destruction of property and disturbing the peace.
Stephens was behaving in a bizarre manner and exhibiting symptoms of psychosis, claiming that God was sending him important messages. The deputy requested remote mobile crisis response assistance, which after assessment and communication with the man’s family recommended that the deputy rush Stephens to the hospital instead of taking him into custody.
Stephens was airlifted to regional hospital for lifesaving surgery after a large tumor was discovered on his brain at the hospital. The fact the deputy was the first professional to encounter Stephens is not unusual.
Nationally, individuals in mental health crisis are more likely to encounter law enforcement than medical assistance. What is maybe less common is that this deputy in a rural county in Nebraska had access to the resources to save Stephens’ life. (This story was shared with the author by the mental health professional who conducted the mobile crisis response assessment.)
People with mental illness are not more likely than anyone else to commit violent acts. In fact, it is 10 times more likely that people with severe mental illness will be victims of a violent crime than the general population.
However, bystanders frequently call 911 when a person near them experiences a mental health crisis, making it much more likely that a person in crisis will encounter law enforcement officers than mental health professionals.
Because of this, law enforcement agencies and state lawmakers have been working to improve law enforcement responses and develop alternatives. Recent legislation has required or funded CIT training, authorized and funded crisis triage centers, and otherwise supported law enforcement efforts to deflect individuals with mental health needs away from criminal justice system involvement.
Local innovation based on the needs of individual communities has also resulted in a variety of police-mental health collaboration programs, including some of the following:
Crisis Intervention Teams (CIT):
Crisis intervention teams are composed of experienced law enforcement officers who volunteer to receive specialized training to respond to mental health calls. These officers are then dispatched to mental health calls or assist other law enforcement officers who are not CIT-trained.
Trained law enforcement officers and mental health professionals who respond to mental health calls as a team and generally work together for an entire shift, riding in the same car.
Mobile Crisis Teams:
Mental health professionals working as a team with specialized training to help stabilize individuals during law enforcement encounters and during crisis situations. Teams can respond to law enforcement or mental health calls.
Case Management Teams:
Behavioral health professionals, law enforcement officers, peers and others that form a team to coordinate care and develop collaborative solutions to reduce repeat interactions with individuals.
Crisis Stabilization Centers:
Facilities where law enforcement can take individuals experiencing mental health crisis that serve as alternatives to jail and emergency departments.
Additional resources of police-mental health collaborations:
Amber Widgery is a senior policy specialist in NCSL's Criminal Justice Program.