'It will save lives': Kan. PD expands mental crisis response team
The mental health team of police officers will be outfitted with "low key" uniforms and vehicles
By Anna Spoerre
The Kansas City Star
OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — The Overland Park Police Department is expanding its mental health team to more than one dozen members who will respond to police calls that involve mental health crises.
The new mental health team, outfitted with "low key" uniforms and vehicles, was unveiled after calls for change were made, prompted in part by the fatal police shooting of a Johnson County teenager during a welfare check in 2018.
Sgt. Stewart Brought, who helped conceive the Overland Park Crisis Action Team, said the idea began in 2013 when they had one full-time crisis intervention team specialist and one co-responder from the Johnson County Mental Health Department working together. In early 2021, they grew to two CIT specialists and three co-responders.
Since then, with a recommendation for expansion from the Overland Park Mental Health Task Force, the team has grown to 12 specialists and six co-responders, though most of the positions haven't officially started yet.
In September, the Overland Park City Council voted 9-1 to approve the new annual budget, raising property taxes to create the expanded unit. OPCAT is also funded by a nearly $250,000 grant from the Department of Justice.
"We're going to be cutting edge in terms of this department," Councilman Jim Kite said at the time.
The city receives anywhere between seven and 10 mental health calls every day, Councilman Chris Newlin said in September.
When OPCAT responds to such a call, they will be joined by a clinician from Johnson County Mental Health.
"Our whole goal is to bring them in and let them do their job, and we're there to make sure everybody's safe," Brought said.
Each OPCAT specialist is required to go through crisis intervention training within their first year with the unit, Brought said. They also have advanced trainings available for specialties such as negotiators, veteran support, homeless outreach and substance abuse outreach.
The uniforms and police vehicles are different by design, Bought said. Officers will don simple polos with their logo, name and badge. The vehicles won't be marked.
"We're just trying to keep it as low key as we can," Brought said, adding that in forming the unit, they researched departments across the nation with mental health response teams, including in Spokane, Washington, Olathe and Topeka.
A therapy dog named Haven will also join the team as part of their trauma-informed approach.
"This OPCAT unit, it will save lives," said Sheila Albers, whose 17-year-old son, John Albers, was killed by former Overland Park police officer Clayton Jenison in January 2018.
Police had been called to the Albers home for a welfare check after 911 calls were made saying John Albers was trying to kill himself. Jenison fired 13 shots, striking Albers six times as the teen backed out of the driveway.
One month later, Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe cleared Jenison of any wrongdoing, saying the shooting was a justified use of force under Kansas law.
After her son's killing, Sheila Albers, who has been a strong advocate for improved mental health resources, formed JOCO United. The nonprofit has fought for a number of reforms, including requiring more officers undergo crisis intervention training, and adding a co-responder to every shift.
"They took our smaller ask, and they did go bigger," she said, though it's not all that's needed. "The OPCAT unit and additional mental health services is half of the solution. It's an important half. It's a good half, but it's only half."
The latest announcement brings mixed emotions. While Albers said she's thrilled about OPCAT, there's a lack of accountability and a struggle for transparency within the department.
She said additional mental health resources are also needed. While the co-responder and officers may be able to calm a situation, there needs to be more services available beyond the immediate response, she said, calling on the Kansas Legislature to take action and emphasizing the importance of Medicaid expansion.
Joe Smarro and Ernie Stevens, former members of the San Antonio Police Department's mental health unit, whose efforts to bring reformed policing to their Texas city were documented in the 2019 HBO documentary "Crisis Cops," said they believe the Overland Park department is headed in the right direction.
"Until we've trained the community that we no longer should be calling 911 because someone is in a mental health crisis, we've got to train police officers, and we've got to give them the resources so that we can ensure that they're going to respond appropriately," said Smarro, who is now CEO of Solution Point Plus where he works as a mental health policy and training consultant.
Smarro said that if done correctly, the secondary benefits of a mental health unit for a community are huge. Success is three-fold, he said: getting people connected with lasting help, decreasing use of force and finding jail alternatives.
Stevens, who now works as a program manager for mental health multidisciplinary response teams, said the work is humbling. But it also taught him the importance of having wraparound services available.
Albers said policing is changing.
"It makes me feel good about our community that I see those changes not just in programs, but in actual culture, that will make our community a safer place," she said.
The Star's Sarah Ritter contributed.
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