This officer’s partner is a mental health counselor
“The counselors give us more tools to use, so we get the best possible outcome.”
The “Defund the Police” initiative in many cities includes a proposal to send social workers and other mental health professionals instead of police officers into incidents where an emotionally disturbed person (EDP) may be involved. Cops know that these events can devolve very quickly into violent encounters resulting in injury or death. It could be useful to have a trained counselor intervening with the EDP, but, as the proverb goes, they’re never around when you need one.
In southeastern Washington, the Tri-Cities police departments, including Kennewick, Pasco and Richland, have been hosting a program since 2018 to get those mental health professionals on scene when and where they’re needed.
The Lourdes Mobile Outreach Team has been riding shotgun with officers working the day and evening patrol shifts. The mental health counselors are employed by Lourdes Counseling Center, part of the Lourdes Health system. The program is funded by a Trueblood grant from Disability of Rights Washington and the Seattle Foundation until June 2022. Once the grant is complete, other funding resources will be necessary.
Kennewick is the largest of the municipalities in the Tri-Cities metropolitan area that also includes the cities of Richland and Pasco; 253,000 people live in the area at the confluence of the Columbia, Snake, and Yakima rivers, spanning Benton and Franklin counties. The Kennewick Police Department (KPD) has about 100 sworn officers.
Officer Rick Sanders has been with KPD for three years, following his retirement from the U.S. Air Force. He frequently takes one of the mental health professionals with him on patrol. “They’ve been a tremendous asset for us,” Sanders said. “They know the cues to identify people with emotional problems. Sometimes, the person has already been diagnosed and prescribed medications, but they stop taking them. The counselors can get them to a prescriber who can get them the meds they need, and back on track.”
Washington law has a provision for peace officers, mental health professionals and other medical professionals to admit someone to a behavioral health facility involuntarily if the person is a hazard to themselves or others, or unable to provide for their basic needs, but they use that option less frequently when they have the counselors on the scene. “The counselors give us more tools to use, so we get the best possible outcome,” Sanders said.
The Tri-Cities municipalities share borders, so their first responders often work cooperatively. “We respond to calls for assistance from the other PDs and sheriff’s offices at least once or twice per week,“ Sanders told Police1. “Our leadership supports this, so it’s never a problem if we have to respond outside of the city to other Benton and Franklin County areas.”
Lourdes Health Crisis Services (LHCS) is a 24-hour crisis response center in Benton and Franklin counties. In the past, they have been limited to community-based evaluations in emergency departments and county jails, and sending traditional first responders to the scene when needed. Deanna Petrilli has been a traditional Designated Crisis Responder out of LHCS, but now she rides with KPD officers, responding to calls for mental health assistance and everything else. She has been a mental health professional (MHP) for 13 years.
“We usually have someone in the field from 0800-2400, seven days a week,” Petrilli said. “There are fewer calls for our assistance during the overnight hours, but we are on call for a response if it’s needed.”
The Lourdes counselors wear body armor with identifying panels that read “MENTAL HEALTH” so that their role is clear to observers. Before they do their first ride, the counselors complete a training checklist to ensure they don’t become a liability or distraction for their police partner.
“We learn to use the radio, scene awareness and how to keep track of where we are, in case we need to call for assistance,” Petrilli said.
Domestic violence situations are among the call types where she and her colleagues can be of the greatest benefit.
“We also handle calls where people are struggling with mental health symptoms and may meet criteria for grave disability, danger to self, or others. These individuals sometimes generate multiple calls for service for officers due to bizarre or dangerous behaviors. These calls typically do not have a criminal component, which is where we come in. We can get access to services for individuals when they might not be as easily available to a police officer. We are there on scene seeing what the officers are seeing and helping individuals in real-time and not just giving them another number to call,” she said.
Co-response in action
Petrilli described an incident where she and KPD officers worked together to achieve the most optimal outcome:
“Officers were notified through dispatch of multiple concerned citizens calling in stating an individual was walking down a busy street with a large knife and yelling to himself. Officers responded and de-escalated the situation, creating an environment in which the individual complied with commands and dropped the knife. Officers took the individual into custody without incident and requested MHP assistance. Due to being in one of the patrol vehicles responding to the situation I was able to observe firsthand the events taking place from a safe vantage point. As a co-responder, I was able to provide officers completing the investigation with relevant information of the individual’s significant mental health history. By coordinating with county prosecutors, law enforcement officers, and mental health on scene this individual was diverted into the behavioral health system for stabilization and treatment rather than the criminal justice system.
This co-responder model has proven to be effective and efficient. Instead of multiple calls having to occur all resources are present to problem solve. MHPs are kept safe while officers are able to secure the scene without having a separate tactical consideration. MHPs are still able to gather a great deal of information in how the individual is presenting by observing the scene, that otherwise gets lost in translation between law enforcement and mental health professionals. MHPs are able to report directly to officers so that behavioral health information is taken into consideration when decisions are being made. If MHPs are not in this co-responder model the totality of circumstances would not be as easily taken into account by law enforcement or behavioral health.”
Using the Lourdes Mobile Outreach Team does not come as a cost to community members needing assistance.
“If someone has a barrier to getting into treatment, we help to guide them to the appropriate resources,” Petrilli said, “There hasn’t been a downside to this program. We’ve worked out the details with local law enforcement, and provided them with a resource that was long overdue. This has helped to bridge the gap between the law enforcement and mental health sectors so we can better serve our community. Our partnership with the officers has proven to be vital in making this program work. The officers and mental health professionals work as a team in helping individuals problem solve and identify the best possible outcome for the situation. This is something I’m passionate about, and I’m happy to discuss our program with law enforcement in other parts of the country.”
Deanna Petrilli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.