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Detroit police expand effort to send social workers with cops on some runs

“Addressing mental health is central to what we do as police officers,” said Police Chief James White, who is a licensed mental health counselor

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By George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — With police runs involving mentally ill citizens on the rise, Detroit police officials Monday announced the expansion of an initiative that deploys behavioral health specialists with officers to some emergencies.

The 7th Precinct, which covers part of the city’s southeast side, is the latest police precinct to join the Mental Health Co-Response Partnership, an attempt to provide treatment to citizens who are mentally ill instead of sending them to jail.

Since the partnership with the Detroit Wayne Integrated Health Network launched in December 2020, 176 Detroit officers have been trained to deescalate situations involving people with mental illness, Police Chief James White said at a press conference at the 7th Precinct on Chene Street.

Crisis Intervention Teams of two police officers and a mental health professional in the 4th, 8th, 9th and 12th Precincts, along with Downtown Services, have had nearly 5,000 contacts with citizens who are mentally ill since the program started, White said.

“Addressing mental health is central to what we do as police officers,” said White, who is a licensed mental health counselor. “It’s very important to have mental health-trained officers, not only for the safety of the community but for our officers as well.”

Calls for service involving mental illness in Detroit increased 10% from 7,209 in 2020 to 7,935 in 2021, according to police statistics. Officers in the 7th Precinct responded to 802 calls for service involving mental illness in 2021, up 21% from 661 in 2020.

Capt. Tonya Leonard Gilbert of the Department’s Office of Internal and External Relations, which oversees the program, said the goal is to have crisis intervention teams in all 11 of the city’s police precincts by the end of the year.

While police have always had challenges dealing with the mentally ill, the problem ramped up in Metro Detroit after inpatient mental health facilities like the Lafayette Clinic in Detroit and Northville Psychiatric Hospital closed in the 1990s and 2000s.

The lack of inpatient beds means people with mental illnesses often are picked up by police, only to be released within 24 hours to commit more crimes.

In July 2020, 28-year-old Darrien Walker was arrested after barricading himself in his home with a rifle, and sent to a hospital for treatment. He was released the next day. Three weeks later Walker was fatally shot by a Detroit police officer after attacking officers with a sword and dagger, an incident that was captured on video.

People with untreated mental illnesses are 16 times more likely than other citizens to be killed during police encounters, according to a 2020 study by the Treatment Advocacy Center, a nonprofit that lobbies for improving the mental health system.

“Reducing encounters between on-duty law enforcement and individuals with the most severe psychiatric diseases may represent the single most immediate, practical strategy for reducing fatal police shootings in the United States,” the study concluded.

Detroit Police Officer Marcus Harris II said his training has helped him deescalate situations and get residents with mental illness the treatment they need.

“We had a mentally ill woman on the east side who had hit her caregiver,” said Harris, who said he undergoes about 20 hours of mental health training every two months. “She was hearing voices.

“We were able to talk to her, and instead of taking her to jail, we were able to get her the treatment she needed,” Harris said. “She was very appreciative.”

NEXT: Outcomes improve when law enforcement and mental health services combine forces

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