Mental health emergencies are best handled by mental health professionals, says the Oklahoma City police captain charged with training officers for the calls they must make under state law.
But until the law changes, police and the state agency charged with providing mental health care are finding ways to minimize officer involvement.
Oklahoma City police are relying on a new tool that brings licensed mental health counselors into the process. Officers are using tablets that can connect those suffering with professionals trained to help with mental illness.
The program, launched in partnership with the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, began early this year. It was postponed when both agencies began reducing staff to minimize risk during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In nearly half of mental health calls, people are not in immediate danger. That’s when the telemedicine program works best, said Oklahoma City police Capt. Jeffery Pierce, head of the department’s crisis intervention team. In those cases officers use the tablets to host a virtual conversation between the person in crisis and a licensed mental health professional. The treatment provider can provide immediate counsel, make arrangements to meet in person or advise police if a hospital transport is needed. This puts the trained, healthcare providers in control instead of leaving police who have little mental health training to decide the best course of action.
Carrie Slatton-Hodges, the commissioner for the state’s department of mental health, said the tablet program seeks to reduce contact between police and vulnerable Oklahomans and potentially violent interactions.
Virtual programs have been widely used in other states and recently began catching on in Oklahoma.
Grand Lake Mental Health Center donated iPads to the Claremore Police Department in 2016 in an effort to reduce the number of patients who needed crisis care.
Officer Brian Burnett said all of Claremore’s patrol officers carry the devices.
“We use them daily,” Burnett said. “Probably on average, three to five, maybe up to 10 times a day.”
Before Claremore police were given the tablets, it was up to officers to evaluate complex behavioral health situations. State law requires police academies to provide prospective officers at least 600 hours of training. A minimum of 4 hours must focus on “recognizing and managing” people who may “require mental health treatment or services.”
Now, mental health professionals are available at the push of a button.
Claremore is inside a 12-county area in northeast Oklahoma served by the Grand Lake Mental Health Center, which receives state funding. Chief Operating Officer Josh Cantwell said they donated iPads to every police agency inside the network.
Five years ago, 1,115 people were involuntarily admitted to the center for care. Most were brought there by police.
“So that means their civil liberties were taken away and they were placed in an inpatient facility,” Cantwell said.
After the virtual programs were adopted, the number of people involuntarily committed by police plummeted. In 2019, there was only one.
Forced hospitalizations should be the last resort, he said. It is an intense level of care and very hard on patients. Grand Lake opened four outpatient centers that focus on early intervention, allowing patients to stay at home with their families and continue working while getting the treatment they need.
The virtual programs still require officers to be on the scene. But an effort coming to Oklahoma City could divert calls from ever reaching police.
The city’s emergency dispatch team will soon include counselors, trained and funded by the state’s mental health department. Non-emergent calls will be routed to a licensed professional who will try to provide help and de-escalate the situation over the phone. If counselors are unable to resolve the situation, police will be dispatched.
By June 2021, every shift will include a mental health counselor. But it’s not enough to divert all of the department’s mental health calls, leaving the rest to police.
Whitney Bryen is an investigative reporter and visual storyteller at Oklahoma Watch with an emphasis on domestic violence, mental health and nursing homes affected by COVID-19. Contact her at (405) 201-6057...
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