N.J. pilot program pairs troopers and mental health experts for some crisis calls

Law enforcement officials, as well as police union leaders, applauded the initiative


By Joe Atmonavage
nj.com

CUMBERLAND COUNTY, N.J. — The state Attorney General’s office announced a pilot program Tuesday that will pair state troopers with a mental health professional when responding to certain crises — a tactic recently adapted by some law enforcement agencies across the country to better respond to mental health emergencies.

Acting Attorney Andrew J. Bruck said the initiative, known as ARRIVE Together, or “Alternative Responses to Reduce Instances of Violence & Escalation,” will initially be operated out of State Police’s Cumberland County stations based in Bridgeton and Port Norris.

Officials said the program is a recognition that they way mental health crises are currently handled is “unacceptable.”

Across New Jersey, according to the attorney general’s office, in two out of every three times that an officer uses force a civilian is identified as either suffering from mental illness or is under the influence and over half of all fatal police encounters occur in similar circumstances.

“In modern times, we ask law enforcement officers to undertake roles they never expected when choosing to serve—marriage counselor, addiction specialist, social worker. And increasingly, officers are asked to act like doctors and psychiatrists, determining what drug a person may have taken, or what mental health condition they may be experiencing,” Bruck said in a statement. “We need to respond to our community members in crisis with clinicians and compassion, and we need to divert individuals with mental illness away from the criminal justice system.”

Advocates have called for more mental health resources in policing in New Jersey in recent years after individuals have been killed by police while in clear mental distress.

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“For far too long, law enforcement has been the primary mental health first responder in Black communities,” said Dr. Charles F. Boyer, the founding director of Salvation and Social Justice. “Preventable police shootings show a lack of imagination we as a society have had in responding to mental health and substance use calls that put both the civilian and officer at risk. ARRIVE Together is the first step to community lead policing.”

Law enforcement officials, as well as police union leaders, applauded the initiative. Colonel Patrick J. Callahan, Superintendent of the New Jersey State Police described the pilot program as “an amazing advantage to de-escalate and resolve” various situations police respond to.

Under the pilot program, state police troopers out of the Cumberland County stations will be accompanied in their police vehicles by a certified mental health screener when responding to 911 calls relating to mental, emotional or behavioral crises, including calls for confused or disoriented persons, welfare checks and suicide watch.

The mental health professionals are state-funded roles that already operate in each New Jersey county. For the pilot program, the mental health professionals will be from the Cumberland County Guidance Center, which provides mental health services in the South Jersey county.

The Rutgers University School of Public Health will perform an assessment of the pilot program and later provide an evaluation of the program that will help determine the next phases of the ARRIVE Together Initiative, according to the attorney general’s office.

New Jersey is now the latest state to adopt a program to better handle the response to mental health crises.

A number of cities across the country have implemented or are currently experimenting with similar programs that dispatch non-police personnel to certain non-violent incidents, like homelessness, people in mental distress or certain disputes.

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Cops in Olympia, Washington partner with a “crisis response team” to defuse arguments and help people struggling with mental health and substance abuse.

In Eugene, Oregon the city has used a mental health services organization since 1989 that handles a fifth of all 911 calls. It saves the city more than $2 million every year, according to the organization.

©2021 Advance Local Media LLC. Visit nj.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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