Police in the Kalamazoo area want closer relations with mental health experts. Now they are trying to do that.

Kalamazoo, Mi – Police that responds to a home conflict between mother and daughter finds a serious teenager who is cutting themselves.

A confused man in a parking lot appears to be suffering from psychotic delusions.

The furious 911 call comes from a woman who is worried about her husband committing suicide, or from someone whose family members have overdosed on drugs.

In Kalamazoo County – as in the rest of the country – police calls often involve people suffering from a behavioral health crisis.

“I would say that between 25% and 30% of our calls have a mental health component,” said John Blue Portage, Deputy Chief of Public Safety.

In fact, Kalamazoo County Sheriff Ron Fuller believes 60% of his prison inmates have mental health problems, “and that’s a good day.”

In 2021, Kalamazoo County’s 911 central dispatch received nearly 19,000 calls in which a behavioral health issue was reported, according to county officials. This is an average of 51 calls a day.

County police agencies have been working for years to improve the response to such calls, especially in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests two years ago.

But now, driven by a $ 500,000 federal grant, regional police chiefs are teaming up with local mental health experts to take the reforms to the next level. Instead of a fragmented approach, police departments are devising a region-wide partnership to enforce the law and strengthen the relationship between the mental health system.

“We’re not advisors,” Kalamazoo County Sheriff Rick Fuller said. “We are police officers who are trained to comply with the law. And they call us to be a mental health consultant in a greater number of calls than we would have ever preferred.

“Our ultimate goal is to be able to release many of the upcoming calls for law enforcement more quickly and because the mental health system cannot assume the law enforcement function,” Fuller said. “Too many times now, the only answer is law enforcement. We’ve had serious cases where we’ve had to physically hire someone, take them to jail, and the caller is saying, ‘This isn’t what I wanted,’ and neither are we.”

The new project has four “pillars,” said Lindsey O’Neil, head of the Integrated Services Program at the County Mental Health Community Agency in Kalamazoo. O’Neil is working with 10 county police chiefs this year to oversee project planning, set for 2023.

The first pillar is to “create a model for answering the entire county, which is available to mental health doctors to respond to crisis situations in real time,” O’Neil said. “That will depend on the model that this group chooses to adopt.”

The second piece is opening a 24-hour mental health crisis intervention center to provide a place to bring people who need immediate attention to first responders as an alternative to hospital emergency departments. The new facility will be located at 440 W. Kalamazoo Avenue and is scheduled to open next year

LINKED: Urgent behavioral health care is planned in downtown Kalamazoo

The third part is the creation of a county-wide team that will meet regularly to “care for our high-risk and needy people who are heavy users and frequent repeaters of EMS,” O’Neil said. “We will try to create a holistic plan where we can gather services around these people and families to reduce the frequency of calls and the frequency of crisis situations.”

The fourth and final piece, he said, is creating a county-wide coding system for local police departments to facilitate better data collection of behavioral health calls.

This coding system would allow officials and the public to know how many calls they receive, and how many would lead to an arrest or hospitalization or other programs, O’Neill said.

It is an ambitious project, but it is driven by law enforcement cooperation, said Jeff Patton, head of Integrated Services at Kalamazoo.

Local police chiefs “approached us and said,‘ We are ready. We want to take this next step. They’re saying we need our community, ”Patton said. ”

Memphis model

Kalamazoo County is using the “Memphis Model” as a template for the project.

This model was developed in 1987 after a Memphis police shooting in which a mentally ill man was shot dead by police. In the aftermath of the death, the city worked with the National Alliance for Mental Illness and citizen leaders to develop new strategies for managing people experiencing a mental health crisis.

From there, specialized training emerged to educate police about mental health symptoms and conditions, and to respond effectively to calls with behavioral health problems.

Kalamazoo County law enforcement agencies have been conducting these crisis response training teams since 2008, most recently this spring when Kalamazoo, Portage, Kalamazoo Township, Vicksburg, Kalamazoo County Sheriff’s Office and Michigan State Police participated in the 40-hour program.

The program receives high praise from local police agencies.

“In Kalamazoo County, we have built a CIT-based problem-solving culture,” said Capt. Rafael Diaz of the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety. that in a few hours someone will have an experience where they can use those skills on the street. ”

But a U.S. Department of Justice guide to the CIT and Memphis model emphasizes that it is only part of the police training program.

“The hardest lesson we’ve learned is about the temptation of training,” says the guide. “Law enforcement and prisons remain a de facto system for responding to mental health crisis situations and housing people with mental illness. Law enforcement agencies are under tremendous pressure to address this systemic challenge. We hear daily from CIT training agencies. training is an important step, but the goal of CIT is not to train officers to be kinder and gentler as they lead people to prison.

“The goal of CIT is to keep people safe and that is impossible if prison is the only destination in a mental health crisis,” the guide says. “A CIT program should help people connect with treatment and services and provide hope for recovery … Training-only approaches do not improve safety and reflect a misunderstanding of the CIT model. The CIT model is not just about the police; it’s about the community’s responses to mental health crises. ”

Challenges

In Kalamazoo County, the challenge now is to get to the next level. The four pillars of Kalamazoo County’s new project are elements of the Memphis model.

Of the 10 police departments in Kalamazoo County, the Portage Department of Public Safety has done the most with CIT training – almost all of its officers have passed the CIT program, compared to about 90 of the 240 Kalamazoo Public Security officers.

Portage also requires its officials to mark calls with a behavioral health component. The list of these calls is provided weekly to the Integrated Services of Kalamazoo, which reviews them to see which are the best candidates for follow-up. On Wednesdays, an ISK social worker goes out with a Portage policeman to knock on doors and direct people and families to appropriate services.

Sure, some police calls require immediate intervention, such as taking someone to a hospital emergency department, Blu said.

The calls for follow-up to the ISK are “more things that can get under the radar where we could be responding to a barking dog complaint, and we find that an elderly person with Alzheimer’s dementia has never gone to the doctor and is there. “The clinician takes the lead in the follow-up, but we’re the ones who started it.”

But it also highlights the barriers to Portage’s experience, Blue acknowledged. People may opt out of mental health counseling or other services. They can accept the offer of help, but then they do not comply. They may lack insurance to pay for advice or other services. The shortage of psychiatric hospital beds across the state remains an ongoing problem. Medical confidentiality laws mean that law enforcement does not know what happens when doctors take office.

The new partnership will not be a silverware, officials acknowledge, but it should improve the ability of law enforcement to connect people with mental health services and make these efforts more consistent across the region.

“As we begin to extract data and analyze what’s going on in the community, I hope we can really identify those high-risk, high-need areas and find out who needs what and where,” O’Neil said.

Like Patton, O’Neil said he is impressed with the police chiefs ’eagerness to implement a plan.

“There’s a lot of moving piece in this and they’ve put all their hands on their backs,” he said. “They said, ‘What you need, what you need to make this happen, we’ll get it.'”

This story is part of the Mental Wellness Project, a solution-oriented journalism initiative that covers mental health issues in southwest Michigan, created by the Southwest Michigan Journalism Collaborative. SWMJC is a group of 12 organizations in the region dedicated to strengthening local journalism. Visit for more information swmichjournalism.com.

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